WSU Professors Study How Literature Boosts the Brain, the Classroom and Empathy
OGDEN, Utah – National Reading Month and Brain Awareness Week are both in March, and that makes perfect sense to two Weber State University professors who are using the words of novelists, poets, essayists and screenwriters to teach students about psychology and neuroscience.
Psychology and neuroscience professor Lauren Fowler and English professor Sally Shigley have combined science and the humanities in a course called “The Story and the Brain.” The interdisciplinary class helps students learn the difficult concepts associated with psychology and neuroscience through literature rather than textbooks.
“Learning psychological and neuroscientific concepts can often be overwhelming for students, as it requires them to integrate large amounts of information with their own experiences in the real world,” Fowler said. “When literature is used as a teaching strategy, it aids in student learning, as it helps the students place themselves into the position of the characters in the story. This allows the students to learn about and explore psychology and neuroscience in a safe and nonthreatening way, while also allowing them to explore novel situations.”
The class kicked off its reading with Frances E. Jensen’s “The Teenage Brain” to learn about brain basics and development and then delved into Mark Haddon’s “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time,” a mystery in which the main character exhibits behavior associated with Asperger’s syndrome, a subtype of autism. Students also read Stevie Smith’s poem “Not Waving but Drowning” to talk about depression. Neil Hilborn’s video poem “OCD” was used before students tackled the official book of psychological issues titled Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.
According to Fowler and Shigley, there are plenty of reasons to teach using literature, one of which is that it increases brain activity in regions not normally associated with reading textbooks. In a study conducted by scientists at Liverpool University, in which participants read the challenging prose and poetry of William Shakespeare, William Wordsworth, T.S. Eliot and more, then read simpler versions of the text, it was found the literature helped readers shift mental pathways and create new thoughts and connections.
“Reading requires us to use the visual areas of the brain, as well as engage our frontal cortex to make meaning out of what we’re reading,” Fowler said. “Reading literature increases connectivity in brain regions to a much greater extent than reading plain, literal text.”
In addition, reading literature is a good way to elicit empathy, a subject that Fowler and Shigley teamed up to study several years ago.
During their research on empathy, Fowler and Shigley used Margaret Edson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play “Wit,” about a woman being treated for stage-four cancer. The story directly addresses the issue of empathy.
Study participants read “Wit” and were asked to report when they felt an emotional response. At the same time, physiological signs of empathy were measured by monitoring the activity of certain facial muscles. Galvanic skin response machines were used to measure physical responses such as skin temperature and heart rate.
After the participants finished reading, Fowler and Shigley compared their perceived empathic responses to their physiological responses. The results of their study demonstrated that reading increased empathic responses in test participants. The two have presented their empathy research at several conferences, including one at Oxford University. It has also been published in two books.
“Literature allows you to put yourself in somebody else’s shoes in a very portable, very safe sort of way,” Shigley said. “In an era where empathy is perhaps very much necessary, literature is a place to go find a kind of connection that you can’t get with other kinds of reading.”
Fowler and Shigley also used “Wit” in “The Story and the Brain” course. As one of their assignments, students wrote poems that explored a psychological or neuroscientific concept. They also had to include an interpretation of their poem. One student wrote: “At a cliff I stand on the edge. Looking below; darkness, emptiness, a mirror to my soul. Falling, my heart races, my stomach flutters. Falling, faster. I can’t move. I can’t, breathe. I open my eyes. At a cliff I stand on the edge. My heart empty, it pulls me like lead. But I never fall.”
The student explained that the speaker is at the edge of a cliff, a symbol of being on the brink of having a breakdown from severe anxiety.
“We’ve gotten great responses from our students,” Fowler said. “Using literature not only enhanced their experiences in the classroom, it also enhanced the experience for me and Dr. Shigley.”