I remember the first time I read Jane Austin; it was the first of a long list of novels, memoirs and biographies that showed me how to unwind from the woes of this world. For me, like for many others, the combination of duty, desire and destiny that govern our lives seemed to simply fade away and my mind became free to explore its creative potential when it was just me and my latest pick.
With each finished book, I felt an amplification in my mental vigour in one way or another and found myself much more prepared to take on the challenges of the world. So, I recently decided to understand what happens in the brain when a person reads.
Not surprisingly, I found that reading enriches the brain. However, the intricacy and meticulousness with which this improvement occurs was baffling. Research confirms that reading does more than add to our vocabulary and spark creativity; it quite literally tweaks brain function to make us more intelligent, empathetic and resistant to age-related cognitive decline.
Here, I have outlined the 10 ways reading leads to a sharper brain;
Improves brain connectivity
Many of us can confirm that a book has changed our lives. Well, scientists now believe that this could well be because of the fact that reading actually alters brain function. As we devour the plot of a book, our brain simultaneously runs several processes including auditory detection, word processing and vocalization.
It is for this reason that reading leads to heightened connectivity within the front temporal cortex (section of the brain related to language reception). What’s more is that this heightened activity persists for multiple days after we have finished reading the content. This means that during these days, you shall be able to perceive, analyse and respond to matters much more quickly as opposed to days when you do not read.
Enhances the theory of mind
Stories have a knack for serving as an encapsulated escape for readers and submerging them into their plot and sub-plots. This is because reading increases activity in the central sulcus (main sensory motor section of the brain) which is associated with the development of representation of the sensations that the body encounters. This is why, simply reading about running or laughing can trigger the neurons associated with actually running or laughing.
This ability of stories to put us in the protagonist’s shoes has far reaching benefits as it elevates our capability to attribute mental states such as intents, beliefs, desires and knowledge, etc. to ourselves as well as others. This phenomenon, referred to as ‘theory of mind’ goes on to enable us to understand that these mental states vary from person to person; thus making us more empathetic to the opinions, preferences and desires of others.
Develops new white matter
Reading has far reaching implications on our mental faculties. This is because it facilitates the development of white matter which is used by our brains to communicate information between grey matter. So, in other words, the more we read, the more fuelled up we are on white matter and are consequently able to process information better.
Reading is to the human mind as exercise is to the body. This reflects in the fact that when we indulge in reading, the section of our brain which is responsible for autobiographic memory is stimulated. This section then strives hard to remember a wide variety of things such as characters, emotions, plot and expressions, and, as a result, receives a rigorous workout. This workout eventually results in the strengthening of our memory function.
Enhances attention span
All stories progress through an opening, build-up and climax before eventually concluding. This gradual sequencing of events works to enhance our attention span as it prompts the brain to think in a relaxed sequential manner. Consequently, our brains end up spending more time understanding complex story narratives as well as the layers of the plot, thus, causing an expansion in our attention span.
Slows cognitive decline
It is a widely known fact that the human mind experiences a steady decline in cognitive vigour with age. What is seldom known, however, is that the speed and extent of this decline can be reduced significantly by keeping our brains active. This is evident from a study published in Neurology which analysed 294 elderly people to find out that participants who were habitual of reading had a much lower rate of cognitive decline as compared to participants who didn’t.
Safeguards against cognitive ailments
In addition to reducing cognitive decline, reading a good book every now and then also leads to the build-up of cognitive reserve which staves off degenerative cognitive ailments. This is because avid reading results in an expanded vocabulary which has been found to be extremely resistant to ageing.
Moreover, reading also allows the brain to overcome cognitive ailments like stroke or dementia by developing new neural pathways around the regions of the brain that have suffered decay due to these ailments.
The signs and symptoms of cognitive ailments are in many ways similar to normal ageing and therefore it becomes crucial to make use of self-administered brain tests at different points in our life. These tests such as online dementia tests not only indicate the presence of an abnormality, but also show an in-depth analysis of your brain’s health.
Improves emotional intelligence
In addition to enhancing fluid intelligence, reading also improves emotional intelligence by enabling us to establish a strong ideology of our own, making us understand other people’s perspectives and then inducing us to carefully correlate the two. This is because reading causes an overlap in the brain networks that are associated with human interaction and regions that comprehend stories and therefore allow us to communicate intelligently.
Enhances analytical abilities
As we try to analyse and put together various sub-plots of a story and then recreate them visually, several regions of the brain are stimulated. This amplifies your analytical abilities as was depicted by a study conducted at the University of Berkeley. The study analysed pattern recognition; a key indicator of analytical thinking and found that people who were in the habit of reading, identified patterns much more quickly as opposed to those who didn’t read.
Increases brain plasticity
Brain plasticity refers to the ability of our brain to modify its function and structure for adjusting itself to changes both in the body as well as the external environment. Studies have indicated that regular reading, particularly of fiction literature, increases your brain plasticity manifolds.
So, there you have it, all you need to do to outshine the rest is to keep enriching yourself in the works of your favourite authors and you will definitely get more than you bargained for.
Evie Harrison is a blogger by choice. She loves to discover the world around her. She likes to share her discoveries, experiences and express herself through her blogs.
Find her on Twitter:@iamevieharrison