We all know that reading can teach you data, and that knowing what’s right at the right time helps you be more successful. But is that the only reason why almost every intelligent and successful person you can imagine? From Bill Gates to Barack Obama, they attribute much of their success to their obsessive reading.
No, according to neuroscience. Science shows that reading not only fills the brain with information, but also changes the functioning of the brain to improve it.
Reading is perhaps one of the best hobbies in the world, and one of the healthiest. Whether you read fiction or nonfiction, a newspaper or a poem, reading is not only educational and informative, but also entertaining and relaxing. And, although it is still a very little explored field, research on reading has shown its many benefits.
Background to these studies
Over the years, doctors, scientists and researchers have confirmed that reading is an activity that reduces stress and can lower heart rate and blood pressure. It has been shown to improve people’s memory, increase brain capacity and even improve empathic skills. Reading has even been linked to longer life expectancy.
So how does reading do all that? Like many other human phenomena, it all starts in the brain. It may not seem so, but when we look at the words on the page, our brain is running several simultaneous processes. From word analysis and auditory detection to vocalization and visualization, to the experience we know and love called reading.
Implications of reading
Reading is not just a way to enter data into the brain. It’s a way to reconfigure the functioning of the brain in general. It reinforces the ability to imagine alternative paths, remember details, imagine detailed scenes, and think about complex problems. Simply put, reading not only makes you wiser, but also functionally smarter. Therefore, the only thing that everyone who admires you agrees on is that you should read more.
It’s not uncommon for people to say that a book has changed their lives. But did you know that reading a novel can change the brain? Researchers at Emory University’s Center for Neuropolitics have found that reading a narrative can cause changes in the brain, not only while engaged in activity, but also in connectivity at rest. What exactly does this mean?
Connections carried out in the brain
According to the study, when we read, the connection between the left temporal cortex of the brain – the area associated with the reception of language – intensifies. What’s more, that increased activity continues for several days after reading.
According to the same study from Emory University, reading not only increases connectivity in the temporal cortex, but also increases activity in the central groove of the brain, or region responsible for primary sensory motor activity. When we read, the neurons in this area of the brain are activated to create a sensation of not only reading about the action of the book, but experiencing the sensations it describes.
For example, if you read a passage from Harry Potter in which you run away from the Dementors, you activate the neurons associated with the physical act of running. A phenomenon known as grounded cognition, reading not only figuratively puts you in someone else’s shoes, but it does so literally through the biology of the brain.
The short- and long-term effects of reading on the brain
Experts do not agree on some details, but there is more and more scientific literature that shows that reading is basically an exercise in empathy. By pushing us to adopt the perspective of characters very different from us, it increases our Emotional Intelligence. This effect can literally be seen in brain waves when read. If a character in your book is playing tennis, it activates areas of your brain that would light up if you were physically on the court.
Another line of research shows that deep reading, the kind of reading that occurs when you snuggle up with a large book over a long period of time, also increases our ability to concentrate and capture complex ideas. Studies show that the less you actually read (reading above the phone doesn’t count), the more these essential capabilities are weakened.
But what happens in the long run? What makes your brain all that time you spend mastering letters when you’re an elementary school student? A recent article by The WEIRDest People in the World author and Harvard professor Joseph Henrich sums up the answer to these questions very well.
The full article offers an account of how the Protestant Reformation led to a huge increase in literacy rates. You don’t have to care about the historical details (the research is super interesting if you do) to find Henrich’s explanation of how learning to read permanently reconfigure our brain fascinating:
This renovation has left you a specialized area in your left ventral temporal region, shifted facial recognition to your right hemisphere, reduced your inclination toward holistic visual processing, increased your verbal memory, and thickened your corpus callosus, which is the information highway that connects the left and right hemispheres of your brain.
No one is going to question you about the anatomy of the brain, so you probably don’t need to memorize the details here. But it’s worth remembering the big picture.
Do you want to improve communication within the brain?
Just open a workbook. According to researchers at Carnegie Mellon University, reading exercises – at least in children, according to the study – can alter brain tissue in a positive way.
In 2009, scientists Timothy Keller and Marcel Just discovered evidence that intense instructions to improve reading in young children actually cause the brain to reconnect physically. By doing so, the brain creates more white matter that improves communication within the brain. The results suggest that reading deficits in children may point to specific problems in brain circuits that can be treated and improved with reading.
Reading, a neurobiologically challenging activity, is the best type of exercise for the brain for many reasons. Chief among them is the ability to improve memory. But how does absorbing written information increase your brain’s memory capacity?
Increased mental activity
Reading involves various brain functions, such as visual and auditory processes, phonemic awareness, fluency and comprehension, among others. According to ongoing research at the Haskins Laboratories for the Science of the Spoken and Written Word, reading, rather than watching or listening to media, gives the brain more time to stop, think, process, and imagine the narrative in front of us. This increased mental activity helps maintain acute memory in the same way that lifting weights keeps muscles toned. Reading and processing what is written, from letters to words, through phrases and stories themselves, stimulates brain activity.
Another side effect of this incredible brain exercise is that reading not only improves memory, but also increases attention span. Because of the sequential narrative style of most books – a beginning, a middle and an end – reading encourages the brain to think similarly about the sequence. Therefore, it helps to spend more time building a story rather than rushing into every detail.
According to neuroscientist Susan Greenfield and her book Mind Change, the Internet has improved users’ ability for short-term memory and the ability to perform several tasks at once, but it can actually divide our attention, as opposed to reading. When we read a novel, we do it in a linear way, instead of sporadically jumping from one tab to another, and we think slowly about the information in front of us. This exercise of taking time to process the narrative, to think about the complex layers of the story and how they fit together, actually increases the capacity for greater attention span, especially in children.
Not all readings are created equal
It is important to note that not all readings are the same. Preliminary results from a series of experiments conducted at Stanford University indicate that close literary reading, in particular, makes the brain work. MRI scans of people delving into a Jane Austen novel showed increased blood flow in areas of the brain that control cognitive and executive function. This compares to the very limited effects seen in participants casually flipping through a paragraph in a bookstore.
Reading with dyslexia
If you (or someone you know) have trouble reading or even have dyslexia, you can still take advantage of the benefits of reading. In an earlier study published in the journal Neuron, researchers found that 100 hours of reading reinforcement classes improved the quality of brain white matter in children ages 8 to 10 who were below-average readers. White matter is the tissue that carries signals between gray matter areas. This is where the processing of information takes place. The researchers’ conclusion: These children’s brains had begun to reconnect in a way that could benefit the entire brain, not just the temporal cortex focused on reading.
The effects of reading on a screen
Also, the ability to read closely is something that has value. In her new book, Reader, Come Home, Wolf notes that even she, as someone who makes a living reading, has discovered that her ability to concentrate on the written word fades as most of what we read is on a screen. “Unfortunately, this form of reading is rarely continuous, sustained or concentrated,” he writes. This creates a vicious circle. Without the sustained exercise of our reading “muscles,” the brain loses its ability to control the intricate processes that allow us to read in depth.
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