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The Cook's Toolkit by Clever Pumpkin.

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Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Bad Books Blow Up The Brain

A most interesting article penned by Random House CEO Gail Rebuck charts the effect of reading on the brain:

'Psychologists from Washington University used brain scans to see what happens inside our heads when we read stories. They found that "readers mentally simulate each new situation encountered in a narrative". The brain weaves these situations together with experiences from its own life to create a new mental synthesis. Reading a book leaves us with new neural pathways.
'The discovery that our brains are physically changed by the experience of reading is something many of us will understand instinctively, as we think back to the way an extraordinary book had a transformative effect on the way we view the world. This transformation only takes place when we lose ourselves in a book, abandoning the emotional and mental chatter of the real world. That's why studies have found this kind of deep reading makes us more empathetic, or, as Nicholas Carr puts it in his essay The Dreams of Readers, "more alert to the inner lives of others"

Okay, so what happens to the brain if the book is as badly edited as Twilight or The Da Vinci Code?  Britain's Institute for Bibliophilic Brain Studies found the effect of bad writing and editing on the brain to be equally dramatic:

'Exposed to half an hour of The Da Vinci Code, brains were seen to shrink dramatically.  In an attempt to escape further reading, several brains liquified and exited the skull by way of the ear canal.  One brain pulled a gun it had concealed behind its left frontal lob, blew a hole in the book (via the host's left eye) then put itself out its misery.  In the case of Twilight, all brains followed a uniform pattern: each formed new neural paths which flashed the words Good God, where was your editor, woman? over and over again.  Remarkably, the words show up on the MRI film.'

Back to Rebuck's article: '… recent scientific research has also found a dramatic fall in empathy among teenagers in advanced Western cultures. We can't yet be sure why this is happening, but the best hypothesis is that it is the result of their immersion in the internet and the quick-fire virtual world it offers. So technology reveals that our brains are being changed by technology, and then offers a potential solution - the book.'

It also means that books as badly edited as Twilight directed at young adults are potentially disastrous.

'The research shows that if we stop reading, we will be different people: less intricate, less empathetic, less interesting.'

Also true if the subject of our reading is formulaic, superficial and unimaginative.  I'm not referring to Twilight there but the tendency of big publishing to seek out and reproduce the same books over and over again.  It is more than a little cheeky for a major publisher to use this research in an attempt to sell books while big publishing habitually shows such contempt for readers through minimal and sub-standard editing.  What's that doing to our neural pathways, hey?

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