Reading’s impact on the Brain

As part of my goal of new positive habit formation in 2018 I began to devote time specifically for reading. This isn’t the first time in my life I said to my self, “Self, you need to read more.” But it was the first time I was going to be a bit more specific on when I would do this, and what would qualify to be consumed during reading time. I set aside at least one hour on Saturday and Sunday and I plan three 30-min reading session during the week. For what qualified, no articles, I am a news junkie preferably sports and science articles. For reading time it was a good ol’ fashioned book, nothing digital.

After reaching the 6-week mark I marked myself as fairly-consistent with my practice. I also noticed some changes in myself.

  • I found it easier to read for the full hour without checking for how much time was left.
  • I felt less anxious in general.
  • I found it easier to stay on task, regardless of the task.
  • I slept better.

There are a lot of factors that play into changes that manifest within ourselves. So I am not attributing those changes solely to reading (I began to swim more regularly too), but it got me to wondering about research that has been done to show the effects reading. Here is some info on what I discovered, and the basis of this month’s Wellness Focus.

Reading Heightens Brain Connectivity and Increases Blood Flow to Certain Parts of the Brain
Researchers at Emory University’s Center for Neuropolicy have found that reading a narrative can cause changes in the brain, not only while participating in the activity but in resting-state connectivity, too. What exactly does that mean? According to the study, when we read, the connection between the left temporal cortex of the brain — the area associated with language reception — is heightened. What’s more, that heightened activity continues for several days following reading.1

In a 2012 study from Stanford University, which enlisted the help of radiologists, neurobiological experts, humanities scholars, and literary Ph.D. candidates, showed that literary reading can have a really significant effect on the way your brain works.

Basically, the experiment went like this: The researchers tracked individuals’ blood flow to the brain as they read excerpts of a novel by Jane Austen. The study participants were first told to give the text a leisurely skim, and then they were asked to read the text more closely, as if doing it for school or an exam. The study was intended to show how your brain is not only affected by what you read, but how you read something, as well as the overall value of studying literature.

The initial results showed that during close reading, there’s a serious increase in blood flow to certain parts of the brain.

Specifically, the researchers saw increased blood flow to a part of the brain referred to as “executive function,” which is associated with things like critical thinking and paying close attention to tasks. And while the blood flow also increased during the more leisurely reading, it happened in different parts of the brain, not just the executive function area. 2

Reading Creates New White Matter, Rewires the Brain
In 2009, scientists Timothy Keller and Marcel Just uncovered evidence that intense reading improvement instructions in young children actually causes the brain to physically rewire itself. In doing so, the brain creates more white matter which improves communication within the brain. The results suggest that reading deficits in children can point to specific problems in the brain’s circuits that can be treated and improved with reading. 3

Not everyone is a natural reader. Poor readers may not truly understand the joy of literature, but they can be trained to become better readers. And in this training, their brains actually change. In a six-month daily reading program from Carnegie Mellon, scientists discovered that the volume of white matter in the language area of the brain actually increased. Further, they showed that brain structure can be improved with this training, making it more important than ever to adopt a healthy love of reading. 4

Reading Increases Memory
A neurobiologically challenging activity, reading is the best kind of workout for your brain for so many reasons. Chief among them is the ability to improve memory, but how exactly does absorbing written information increase your brain’s capacity for memory?

Reading involves several brain functions, including visual and auditory processes, phonemic awareness, fluency, comprehension, and more. According to the ongoing research at  Haskins Laboratories for the Science of the Spoken and Written Word, reading, unlike watching or listening to media, gives the brain more time to stop, think, process, and imagine the narrative in from of us. This increased mental activity helps keep your memory sharp much in the way lifting weights keeps your muscles toned. Reading and processing what is written, from the letters to the words to the sentences to the stories themselves, boosts brain activity. 5

Reading Improves Levels of Compassion and Empathy
The results of a 2013 study from Emory University showed that your brain actually remains changed for a few days after reading a novel.

According to the research, reading can help improve the connections made in your brain, even while it’s in a resting state — as in, even when you aren’t reading or otherwise challenging your brain to perform a task. The researchers on the study tracked 21 students’ brains as they all read the same novel, using MRI scans on the mornings after they were given reading assignments, as well as on mornings when they hadn’t read anything the night before. The students’ brain activity was also recorded as they were doing quizzes about the reading, and during a resting state, too. Not so surprisingly, the researchers found greater activity and increased connections in the participants’ brains on the mornings after they did the reading assignments than on mornings when the students didn’t do any reading.

But what’s really wild about the results was that the researchers found that a totally different part of the brain was activated while the participants were reading — a region of the brain that’s associated with physical sensation and movement, which makes it more possible to “transport” yourself into the body of the narrator in the book and feel what they’re feeling. Neuroscientist Gregory Berns, the director of Emory’s Center for Neuropolicy and lead author of the study, explained these awesome findings:

“The neural changes that we found associated with physical sensation and movement systems suggest that reading a novel can transport you into the body of the protagonist.

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.”

So, in a way, you really can walk a mile in someone else’s shoes, or at least imagine what it feels like to do so. As a result, your might just grow your understanding and compassion of others in the process. 6

Reading Increases Attention Span
Stories have a beginning, middle, and end, and that’s a good thing for your brain. With this structure, our brains are encouraged to think in sequence, linking cause and effect. The more you read, the more your brain is able to adapt to this line of thinking. Neuroscientists encourage parents to take this knowledge and use it for children, reading to kids as much as possible. In doing so, you’ll be instilling story structure in young minds while the brain has more plasticity, and the capacity to expand their attention span. 7

According to neuroscientist Susan Greenfield and her book Mind Change, the internet has improved users’ capacity for short-term memory and ability to multi-task, but it can actually split our attention, unlike reading. When we read a novel, we read linearly, rather than sporadically jumping from tab to tab, and slowly think 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 longer attention spans, especially in children. 8

Reading Reduces Stress
Turns out that your library is great for your mental health. In 2009, the University of Sussex did a study that showed that half an hour of dedicated reading is better for your stress levels than several other more traditional methods of relaxation, like having a cup of tea or listening to music. It reduced stress levels by up to 68 percent, which is pretty significant.

Scientists think the reason is partially escapism, partially physical focus: complete immersion in a book means the body is less focussed on its own tense muscles, and relaxes.9

Reading as Mindfulness
Lastly, here are two articles that share ways to utilize reading time into mindfulness time.

New York Times: How To Be Mindful When Reading

Mindful: Three Simple Mindfulness Practices You Can Use Every Day