Reading helps rewrite the brain

One of the activities that make us healthier, smarter and more empathic is reading. The benefits are plenty, which is especially important in a distracted, smartphone age in many people don’t learn to read. This not only endangers them socially and intellectually, but cognitively handicaps them for life, writes Derek Beres, author of Whole Motion: Training Your Brain and Body For Optimal Health, in “BigThink.” He cites a 2009 study, according to which, reading creates new white matter in the brain, which improves system-wide communication. White matter carries information between regions of grey matter, where any information is processed. Not only does reading increase white matter, it helps information be processed more efficiently.

Reading in one language has enormous benefits. Add a foreign language and not only do communication skills improve—you can talk to more people in wider circles—but the regions of your brain involved in spatial navigation and learning new information increase in size. Learning a new language also improves your overall memory, according to Beres.Because reading does in fact make us more intelligent. Research shows that reading not only helps with fluid intelligence, but with reading comprehension and emotional intelligence as well. You make smarter decisions about yourself and those around you.

All of these benefits require actually reading, which leads “to the formation of a philosophy rather than the regurgitation of an agenda,” normally found in reposts and online trolling. Recognising the intentions of another human also plays a role in constructing creative philosophy. Novels are especially well-suited for this task. A 2011 study found overlap in brain regions used to comprehend stories and networks dedicated to interactions with others.

Novels consume time and attention. While the benefits are worthwhile, even shorter bursts of prose exhibit profound neurological effects. Poetry elicits strong emotional responses in readers and, as one study shows, listeners. Heart rates, facial expressions, and “movement of their skin and arm hairs” were measured while participants listened to poetry. Forty per cent ended up displaying visible goose bumps, as they would while listening to music or watching movies. Their neurological responses, however, seemed to be unique to poetry: Scans taken during the study showed that listening to the poems activated parts of participants’ brains that, as other studies have shown, are not activated when listening to music or watching films. These responses mostly occurred near the conclusion of a stanza and especially near the end of the poem. This fits in well with our inherent need for narrative: in the absence of a conclusion our brain automatically creates one, which, of course, leads to plenty of heartbreak and suffering when our speculations prove to be false. Instead we should turn to more poetry since, “There is something fundamental to the poetic form that implies, creates, and instills pleasure.”

In reading attention matters. Research at Stanford showed a neurological difference between reading for pleasure and focused reading, as if for a test. Blood flows to different neural areas depending on how reading is conducted. Like any skill we need to practice reading, regularly and constantly. Deres holds that “life would seem a bit less meaningful if we didn’t share stories with one another.” He adds: “While many mediums for transmitting narratives across space and time exist, I’ve found none as pleasurable as cracking open a new book and getting lost in a story. Something profound is always discovered along the way.”

The writer is professor of science, religion & philosophy