Can reading make you more stupid?
January 24, 2014 | 4:45 pm
There, thought that would grab your attention. And of course the answer is no. But I’m using that title to point up the somewhat asinine headline of a recent article by Dan Hurley in the UK Guardian: “Can reading make you smarter?” To which many might immediately answer: What else is reading for? And others might ask: Well, if reading can’t, what the hell else can?
But then, Hurley has quite a lot invested in the business of smartening up your smarts. He’s the author of Smarter: The New Science of Building Brain Power, and according to his website, his 2012 New York Times Magazine feature “Can You Make Yourself Smarter?” was “of the magazine’s most-read articles of the year.” So he’s surely the smartest guy in the room when it comes to getting smart about smartness.
Hurley does do a bit of genre-busting by claiming that an early discovery of Spider-Man took him up the learning curve from a slow starter to a straight-A student. “Was I actually ‘slow’ when I was eight?” he asks, “and did I somehow become smarter because I immersed myself in reading and writing comic books?”
Revealingly, Hurley needs to spend “three years interviewing psychologists and neuroscientists around the world, reviewing their studies and testing new methods they claim can increase intelligence” to confirm his intuition. After all, millennia of human experience and validation from the humanities isn’t enough: Hurley has to drag it all to the altar of scientism for sacramental benediction. Because unless it’s all down in hard numbers and solid research, it can’t be true, right?
Still, if the words of Albert Einstein and Descartes aren’t good enough for you, there is plenty of scientific evidence for the direct cognitive and intellectual effect of reading. Just one representative quote – which carries a little more authority and conviction than Hurley’s effusions – from Anne E. Cunningham and Keith E. Stanovich’s “What Reading Does for the Mind“: Reading has cognitive consequences that extend beyond its immediate task of lifting meaning from a particular passage. Furthermore, these consequences are reciprocal and exponential in nature. Accumulated over time—spiraling either upward or downward—they carry profound implications for the development of a wide range of cognitive capabilities.”
Problem is, you need to have read enough already to be comfortable with words like “cognitive” or “reciprocal” and “exponential,” let alone to be able to guess what they might imply in this context. Hurley does use the word “cognitive” once in his article – but I’m just not quite so convinced that he’s at home with it than these authors. Maybe it’s something about the tone of his prose – which you can only pick up on by having read enough to compare, eh?
I’d be more worried than inspired by what this article suggests about the state of our attitudes towards reading, education, self-cultivation, and culture in general. Do Guardian readers need to be told that reading is good for them? Has the general educated public lost so much understanding and self-respect to some half-digested pseudoscientific prejudices that they need to relearn the value of books?
Which leads to one final conclusion: If you’re the kind of person who needs to be told that reading can make you smarter, then you ought to be reading more. Know what I mean?