The Benefits of Deep Reading: Neuroplasticity in Action


by Maureen Hall

My posting is a response Bob Waxler’s recent post on “Deep Reading.” Bloggers discussed many aspects of deep reading and attempted to define what it means.


In Proust and the Squid (2007), Maryanne Wolf makes clear that a key source of worry in the 21st century includes that people may not engage in deep reading or reading at all for that matter.  Wolf articulates a connection between Socrates’ worry about his world moving from an oral to a written culture to our current worry that people won’t read as we move into the digital age. Wolf explains that this correlation is “relevant today as we and our children negotiate our own transition from a written culture to one that is increasingly driven by visual images and massive streams of digital information” (19).

Wolf talks about how the act of reading actually changes the make-up of the brain. What then will happen to us if we don’t read? Though there is no particular answer to this question, we can look at the inverse side of the argument; that is, what happens to us when we do read?


Wolf claims that “By identifying with characters, young readers expand the boundaries of their lives” (140). Others, like Daniel Goleman also talk about the “neuroplasticity” of the brain in terms of educating for emotional intelligence. He explains the meaning of neuroplasticity as “the fact that the brain can change at any point and continues to be reshaped throughout life by repeated experiences” (153). However, Goleman claims that in order for emotional intelligence to develop, “learning needs to be experiential to be effective.” (153)


Maureen Hall

Maureen Hall

Wolf’s and Goleman’s work, each in dialogue with the other, help me to define what deep reading is and what it can be. In the best kind of Changing Lives Through Literature discussions, I believe that we can encourage deep reading in action. Though I can read something by myself and understand it, I cannot understand it in the deepest ways without dialogue and interaction with others. The best CLTL discussions create a community of meaning-makers.


David Whyte
reflects on the key points growing out of twentieth century psychological investigations and how important community is to the formation of identity in individuals. One overarching finding, he reports, is that “the identity of individual human beings is predicated, ironically enough, on belonging”  (11).  And I believe that CLTL discussions can help people grow their identities.


Deep reading and discussion of a common text allows for opportunities where people can get to know themselves better and get better acquainted with the world in which they live. In turn, this participation holds the opportunity for increasing emotional intelligence which helps us to better live in this world.

Whyte echoes Goleman’s emphasis on the experiential:

What brings a human being alive is a sense of participation in the conversation of life with others, with the great things of the world, with the trees or landscapes or skies or cityscapes, and that this conversation is the way by which a human being comes to understand the particularity of their own gifts in the world (11).


Similarly, CLTL discussions afford us with opportunities to activate deep reading, make changes in our brains, understand more about who we are, and participate more thoughtfully in the world.


 Maureen Hall (PhD University of Virginia) is an Assistant Professor in the Education Department at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth. As a member of the Carnegie Academy for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, her work focuses on Cognitive-Affective Learning. Her current research projects focus on the cognitive and affective dimensions of service learning with pre-service teachers, the professional development of teachers, and the integration of contemplative practices to deepen learning.

19 thoughts on “The Benefits of Deep Reading: Neuroplasticity in Action

  1. Growing from the Russian Formalists’ arguement that art serves to defamiliarize us from the scripted banality of everyday existence, there is an international group of psychologists, linguists, and literary scholars who are demonstrating empirically that literature does positively correlate with increased empathy and emotional growth.

    One of these researchers is a psychologist at the University of Toronto named Keith Oatley–also an award-winning novelist. Oatley, along with several other professors specializing in the psychology of literary reading (one of whom is one of my mentors, Dr David Miall), have created a blog which I recommend the CLTL community begins engaging with. That blog is called “On Fiction.”

    Why should the CLTL community read On Fiction? It’s simply the nature of blogging. In order to draw new, expert readers to this blog, we need to be out commenting on other blogs. When you leave a comment on another expert’s blog, list your URL as and that expert will note its existence and likely begin reading and commenting on it.

    Are you all using RSS (Really Simple Syndication)? This is an easy way to keep up with blogs and it can be built right into your Outlook. If anyone wants more information on RSS for Outlook, here’s a helpful link:
    I personally prefer Google Reader (because it’s online and so I can access it from any terminall). I also find Google Reader is an easier way to search for blogs’ names and quickly add them to my RSS. Here’s an intro:

    Again, if we’re out there commenting on blogs, those blogs will come to us. These connections are invaluable for social/professional/academic networking.

  2. Hi Maureen. This is a nice synthesis that gets at why CLTL is effective–not only does the program engage individuals in the kind of deep reading that can change the brain, but it does so in a community setting. Not only do participants identify and interact with the text–they also identify and interact with each other. Seeing themselves both in the text and in the experiences recounted by the other participants helps participants better understand themselves and their place in the world.

  3. Thanks Maureen for the interesting essay here. As you know, I think Wolf’s work on this topic is very valuable — and valuable too is the work of the U of Toronto Group ( which Allan references). I think reading the text is half the process, as you suggest; the other half is the conversation. And I have no doubt that the ongoing engagement with language (through reading the stories and through the conversation) can, and does, change the brain. That process seems to enhance empathy. A number of people have also recently suggested that psychotherapy (“the talking cure”) works in a similar way: through an ongoing process, the patient begins to change the brain circuits, creating a new story to live by, so to speak. Keep the vision, Maureen.

  4. I just read an article on a newly released study on how searching on the internet can cause many parts of the brain to “fire up” at once. The underlying inference is that it is more effective at exercising the brain than deep reading.
    Is there any research using fMRI with “deep reading”?

  5. Maureen: I’d love that citation.

    Jenni and Bob: good points about the follow-up conversation. I believe this is similar to how writing about a book allows us to synthesize our ideas into something more significant than when we’re just reading. It’s a two pronger process that’s important to CLTL.

  6. I like Maureen’s emphasis on the community of “meaning-makers” that results after people “deep read” and then come together to discusss. Somehow the phrase “deep reading” comes across as a solitary act. Whereas, according to Maureen’s fuller definition, deep reading also means coming together, belonging — This in turn helps “people grow into their identities.”

    (I also commend the great visual at the top this article)

  7. Absolutely, Tam. The great literary theorist and semiotician Mikhail Bakhtin argues that the power of the novel is in the coexistence of different voices in dialogue with each other: characters, narrators, and even the author create a conversation. Bakhtin calls this multiplicity of voices heterglossia. Bakhtin furthers this notion with the concept of dialogism: that works of literature build on each other, recreating each other through these interralations. Bakhtin’s theories considerably predated the concept of intertextuality that has become popular in poststructural/postmodern academic discourse.

    The main point here is that reading allows you to join this conversation. I think much of this could be a theoretical backdrop for the work that CAL and the empirical studies of literature.

  8. Maureen: I see what you’re saying in your comment here: searching the internet “fires up” the brain–but I bet “deep reading” gives it peace and stirs belonging and empathetic desire. That is, as you suggest, searching the internet is “shallow reading” and reading Tolstoy is “deep reading”!!

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