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Woody Allen famously claimed that after taking a speed-reading course, he was able to peruse all 560,000 words of War and Peace in just 20 minutes. "It involves Russia," was his astute précis.

Mr. Allen's exercise in reading and retention was almost 40 years ago and, of course, got a lot of laughs. Now, though, a gaggle of neurobiologists, humanities scholars and radiologists at Stanford University in California is getting serious about the reading experience – fast and slow. They are running experiments in which participants are given a Jane Austen novel (title unspecified), slid into an MRI machine, then told first to read a passage at a "leisurely skim" followed by a request "to read more closely, as they would while studying for an exam." The machine tracks brain activity as they do so.

Before starting the experiment, the researchers expected to see "pleasure centres activating for the relaxed reading" and predicted that close reading "would create more neural activity than pleasure reading." Amazingly, the science is confirming the hypotheses: Read carefully, paying close attention to the words on the page, and there's "a global increase in blood flow to the brain;" read leisurely and while there is also an increase of blood flow, it's only to discrete regions.

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This is good to know, one supposes, but isn't there a certain, well ... duh aspect to the whole thing? Tens of thousands of graduate students could have told the scientists, without benefit of expensive MRI technology, that a leisurely read of, say, Henry James's The Wings of the Dove or Ulysses by James Joyce is simply impossible, a guaranteed frustration, in fact, for any foolish enough to try.

Still, there may be more mundane applications to the research. Recently, Toronto Mayor Rob Ford made headlines across the country when he was photographed skimming city documents while driving his new Escalade on a freeway. Sure, it could have ended in blood, sweat and tears for his worship and others. But the gang at Stanford probably would say, "There's a teachable moment there, too, folks." After all, how much, really, could Mr. Ford have retained from reading in those circumstances? Had he actually had the skills of close reading, he would have pulled to the side of the road and hunkered down on the text at hand. Mr. Ford's brain would have benefited and so, by extension, would the city.

To put it another way – as one Stanford researcher did ever so wordily this week – close reading can teach us how to "modulate our concentration and use new brain regions as we move flexibly between modes of focus." Science: ain't it grand?

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James More


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