The effect on the brain of reading complex literature

Given that it is Jane Austen’s big year (well, one of them, the 200th anniversary of the publication of Pride and Prejudice), the value of the Arts is challenged by government cuts and we are all increasingly interested in how the brain works, what a pleasure it was to hear Professor Natalie Phillips of Michigan State University talking on the BBC’s Open Book on Sunday. The effect of reading complex literature that invites thoughtful analysis is being shown to have a particularly advantageous effect on areas of the brain which many other activities do not reach. For Professor Phillips, it’s all about reading Mansfield Park. Once you dip inside the treasure trove that is Jane Austen, you find that the reactions of others to the mythical idea of the author herself provides an additional layer of interest, yes, even beyond the vagaries of film adaptations, wet shirts etc. Virginia Woolf imagined what it would have been like to be in a room with Jane: ” a sense of meaning withheld, a smile at something unseen, an atmosphere of perfect control and courtesy mixed with something finely satirical…” She concludes that it would have been “alarming to find her at home”.  As to the effect of one book, for me, I have the image of my 98 year old grandmother sitting in her chair with her hand covering her ancient, battered edition of Pride and Prejudice. Having read it increasingly regularly in her life she had in her final years lost the ability to read, so she simply had her old, battered edition on her table and kept her hand on it, for her, a sacred tome.

Read more on the Austenonly blog.

By Keith Budge, Headmaster, Bedales Schools


Bedales School is one of the UK’s top independent private co-education boarding schools. Bedales comprises three schools situated in Steep, near Petersfield, Hampshire: Dunannie (ages 3–8), Dunhurst (ages 8–13) and Bedales itself (ages 13–18). Established in 1893 Bedales School puts emphasis on the Arts, Sciences, voluntary service, pastoral care, and listening to students’ views. Bedales is acclaimed for its drama, theatre, art and music. The Headmaster is Keith Budge.