EducationHabits of Mind

Reading and the Brain

By September 25, 2015 October 3rd, 2018 No Comments

This week, I have been absorbed in the world of Kent Haruf’s Plainsong, set in a fictional town in Colorado. My friend Anna gave the book to me for my birthday and told me I would love it. I really did. The writing is flawless and the stories of different people living in various states of abandonment (being left, leaving, being pushed away) and homecoming are going to haunt me for a long time.

Readers who count this book as one of their all time favorites will have a lot of different opinions about which character’s story is the most compelling. But for me, it is the story of two brothers deep into their bachelorhood who take in a pregnant teenager whose mother has thrown her out.

They are hesitant to take her in not because they judge her predicament harshly, but because they are so unaccustomed to caring for anyone other than themselves. The humble, unconditional love they almost immediately feel for her is so surprising and so permanent that it compels the reader to question what she herself would do — and makes clear the power of empathy.

The girl, Victoria, needs the protection of these virtual strangers very much. So does the child she’s carrying. And the brothers embrace an opportunity to demonstrate unyielding care to a total stranger.

A recent study out of Emory University looks at the neural effects of reading and supports what so many of us already know and believe: that reading stories not only helps children to become literate, but also develops their empathy and sense of self. Says neuroscientist Gregory Berns, “We already knew that good stories can put you in someone else’s shoes in a figurative sense. Now we’re seeing that something may also be happening biologically.”

To read more about the study, visit



Jessica is a doctoral candidate, education consultant, writer and editor. She is the founder of bookclique, a collaborative of English teachers and students working to promote book culture, and a co-founder of Well-Schooled, the site for educator storytelling, dedicated to sharing first-person educator stories. All Rights Reserved - What I Learned Today in School.