How Books Turn Your Brain
Updated: Apr 28
"She is too fond of books, and it has turned her brain." -- Louisa May Alcott in Work: A Story of Experience
The beloved author of Little Women, Louisa May Alcott, wrote dozens of novels, short stories, and poems, including the novel which contains one of my favorite bookish quotes. The charge of being too fond of books is levied at Christie Devon, the protagonist of Alcott's 1873 semi-autobiographical novel Work: A Story of Experience. The book follows Christie as she tries to support herself financially by working in various jobs with varying degrees of success. It is while working as a servant that the young Christie falls asleep while reading, knocking over a candle and setting fire to some hanging clothing. Her outraged employer shrieks her accusation that it is the heroine's love of books which has affected her mind and caused the small blaze.
This quote as it is used in Alcott's book is no compliment. It suggests the misguided notions of an earlier age-- that women who read too much risk damaging their weaker minds. The idea that women have somehow inferior brains, brains not up to the task of such intellectual pursuits as scholarly or even pleasure reading, makes me seethe. It's a view clearly not shared by the novel's heroine, who goes on to greater things, or by Alcott herself, who was a successful writer as well as a feminist and abolitionist.
Today the quote makes me smile simply for its absurdity. I love reading! I have no fear of an over-fondness of books. Books are how I learn, how I find inspiration, how I escape! I'd like to think books and reading strengthen my mind, not addle it. Still, it piqued my curiosity. What effect do all these books have on my brain?
Reading itself requires a host of brain activities as we convert lines and curves of ink on a piece of paper or a screen into recognizable letters, words, sentences, paragraphs, and whole stories in our minds. An article from the Harvard Mahoney Neuroscience Institute explains that reading and comprehension involves the temporal lobe region of the brain, the Broca's area in the frontal lobe, and the angular and supramarginal gyrus. But wait, there's more! A collection of nerve fibers known as "white matter" serve as pathways which connect the brain's reading network. Information travels simultaneously along these pathways as we read. It all happens smoothly without us ever guessing the brain power at work.
We may occasionally have the impression that a great work of fiction has changed us. This may be even more true than we realize. That book may have changed our brains. A study out of Emory University used fMRIs to image the brains of undergraduate students who had read a novel over the course of a few days. The results showed heightened connectivity in hubs of the brain associated with perspective taking. That same heightened connectivity in other parts of the brain may allow for readers to experience something of the actions taken by characters in the story. Reading and thinking about an action can mirror the brain connectivity that happens during that action in real life. This may explain how we as readers can sometimes feel like we are truly in the story right alongside the characters. The study found that these brain changes lasted several days after the students finished the novel, which means reading may make long-term changes to our brains. You can read the full Emory University study here or an article from The Atlantic summarizing the findings here.
A 2019 study found that shared reading groups, in which the reading material is read out loud and then discussed, benefited older adults with dementia by improving engagement, social interaction, quality of life, and cognitive skills. While the study notes that more research is needed in this area, the findings suggest that you are never too young or too old to reap the cognitive rewards of enjoying a good book.
So while avid readers have no fear that too many books will cloud our minds, the stories we read do affect our brains. Reading is a complex mental process that requires seamless cooperation between different regions of the brain. Books not only educate us, they can make us more empathetic toward others. Our brains may experience what we read more than we ever realize, and the changes that result may be long lasting. Books and reading may even help us connect to each other and the world around us when our bodies and minds reach our final years.
Rather than being hurt by her love of books, ultimately Alcott's Christie Devon in Work finds herself (spoiler alert!) surrounded by a loving and diverse group of female friends, independent and happily committed to her calling of encouraging and supporting women. I hope to learn from her literary example. I will keep reading and loving books as much as I can, in full confidence that if books have "turned my brain," they have turned it in the right direction. Best wishes for fond further reading!