What happens to your brain when you read more?
Whether your idea of a gripping read is the Harry Potter series or the latest police procedural from your favourite crime author, have you ever stopped to think about what your brain on books looks like? Our brains change and develop in some fascinating ways when we read. It doesn't matter whether your book of choice is a dog-eared charity shop bargain-bin special or the latest bestseller downloaded to your shiny new Kindle - reading has all kinds of benefits for our brains. So what really happens to your brain when you read more?
Your brain on books
Reading is an immersive experience that brings your brain alive - it creates its own images and ideas as you lose yourself in a novel. But there is evidence which suggests that we can actually physically change the structure of our brains through reading. Your brain on books is active - growing, changing and making new connections and different patterns, depending on the type of material you're reading. Forget your Playstation or Xbox - reading is the original virtual-reality experience for your brain. But how else does reading affect your brain?
You create photos in your mind
Creating a world in your own mind is what happens when you lose yourself in a really good book - it's the reason why many of us are often so disappointed with film adaptations of bestsellers. Evidence suggests that our brains create these visual images automatically as we read, whether you intend to or not.
You'll 'live' the experiences you read about
When we read, our brains believe we have experienced the things we're reading about, which is why we feel so connected to some books. The same neurological regions of the brain are stimulated by reading about something as by experiencing it; it's hard for your brain to tell the difference!
Your brain creates differing patterns
Did you know that different types of reading can provide a different experience for your brain, and differing benefits? Researchers from Stanford University found that reading for pleasure increases blood flow to different areas of the brain, whilst reading for literary study gives your brain a workout across multiple complex cognitive functions; so there IS something to be said for studying English literature!
Your attention span improves
Still with us? Good. The good news is that if you struggle to focus, reading can improve your attention span. Books have a beginning, middle and end, and this structure is beneficial for our brains. It encourages us to think in sequence - the more we read, the more our brains are able to link cause and effect. Reading to kids as much as possible means that you're giving them even more capacity to expand their attention span, at a time when the brain is still growing and developing.
Your brain's structure changes
Whilst you might never really get into reading if you find it a struggle, anyone can be trained to become a more proficient reader. When undergoing training, your brain actually changes physically. Scientists from Carnegie Mellon University assessed students on a 6-month daily reading program and found that the white matter in the language area of their brains had actually increased.
You become more empathetic
Losing yourself in a good book can lead to physical changes in the brain, but leaving the real world behind and connecting with characters in a story lets us feel what they feel. This in turn makes us more empathetic to others in real life, and more aware of how they are feeling.
Neurobiological research which utilises functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) has begun to be used to identify brain networks associated with reading. A study carried out by researchers at Emory University looked at the lasting effects that reading has on the brain. 21 students participated in a 9-day experiment, reading Robert Harris' novel 'Pompeii', chosen for its dramatic, page-turning plot.
Participants underwent a base-line fMRI scan of their brain each morning, to assess its resting state. They were given 9 sections of the novel to read over a 9-day period, reading in the evening and coming in the next morning for a brain scan. The morning scans which took place after reading the night before showed that heightened connectivity was occurring in the left temporal cortex, the part of the brain linked to receptivity for language (1).
The central sulcus of the brain, where neurons make representations of sensation, also saw heightened connectivity. The study's lead author explains, "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 a good story can put you in someone else's shoes in a figurative sense. Now we're seeing that something may also be happening biologically."
Does reading permanently change your brain?
It's unclear from studies that have been carried out how long these changes in the brain may last, but the fact that they are still evident a few days after reading does suggest that your favourite novel could have a lasting effect on your brain's biology. We know that our diet affects our energy levels and mood, and that getting more exercise can help us to feel more mentally alert and energetic, but what about our brains? Next time you choose a book from the shelf, or download a new title on your Kindle, stop and think about what you're reading - it could impact you more than you realise!
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