What happens to your brain when you read
You’ll have probably heard that reading is quite good for you. There are loads of proven benefits of reading, from reducing feelings of depression, helping you sleep, to even making you smarter. All these wonderful effects of diving into a good read occur because of the neurological impact that focusing on books has on our brains.
So, what happens in the brain when we read?
Just as your body needs physical exercise to keep you working in optimum condition, your brain needs regular stimulation to keep it tip-top. When you read, your brain is actively changing and developing as it is having to take in information, learn new words and concepts and make connections between ideas.
When we read words in a book, all we are really doing is recognising symbols that we understand as meaning different words and concepts. When we learn to read, we learn how to recognise these symbols and the patterns that they occur in to understand their meaning. That’s why you can generally read sentences even if some words are missing or have left-out letters. We can recognise sentence structures and word patterns even with vital parts missing and still understand it.
Changing our brain
There is evidence that suggests that when we read, we are actually physically changing the structure and efficiency of our brains.
Scientists have found that when we read, especially during intense reading, our brains can actually physically rewire itself. This positive alteration in brain tissue causes the volume of white matter in the language area of the brain to increase. This helps to improve communication within the brain, especially within children. Not only this, but our actual brain structure can be improved with regular reading.
Similarly, the researchers at Emory University’s Center for Neuropolicy have found that reading a narrative causes the connection between the left temporal cortex of the brain (the part associated with language reception) is heightened. Not only does this happen while we have our noses stuck in a book, but also afterwards, continuing for several days.
Living through pages
Enjoying a page-turner doesn’t just improve your brain connectivity but also impacts your the activity in the part of the brain responsible for your sensory-motor activity. This is because when we read, the neurons in this area of the brain activate so that our brains react as if we were actually experiencing what we are reading.
This is why we get so attached to certain stories, because our brains cannot tell the difference between reading about something, and us experiencing it ourselves. This is called grounded cognition – when reading puts you in someone’s shoes both figuratively and literally. If you read about tastes or smells, your sensory cortex lights up. If you read action-packed scenes with lots of movement, your motor cortex is activated. So when you are on the edge of your seat hooked to a best-seller thriller, your brain will think you are living the most action-packed life instead of being settled on your sofa!
As the wonderful, neurobiologically challenging activity that it is, reading is also a great way for you to improve memory. Because reading involves several brain functions – visual and auditory processes, phonemic awareness, fluency, comprehension – our brain power is being put to the test. Because of this, when we read, we are processing the narratives or information in front of us more than when we watch a film or listen to an audiobook. This increased mental activity over long periods of time helps keep your memory sharp, in the same way that regularly exercising keeps you fit and healthy. Reading and processing the pages in front of your boosts your brain activity.
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Better attention span
Another side effect of this being a bibliophile is increasing your attention span. Because of the narrative style of most books — having a beginning, middle, and end — when we read we are encouraging our brain to think in this in sequence. This helps us to think carefully and logically instead of speeding through information without taking much in.
Being in the digital age, we use the internet a lot, which is good…to a certain extent. Using the internet has improved our short-term memory and ability to multi-task, but jumping between different applications doesn’t help our attention span. In comparison when we read a novel, we read linearly, slowly taking in the information from the page and processing it. This process helps to improve our attention span helping us focus for longer.
All these positive effects of reading on the brain go completely unnoticed when we bury ourselves in a book because you completely lose yourself between the pages of a page-turner. But it is rewarding to think of all the benefits you’re getting while enjoying a great book, and it might inspire you to finish that novel on your shelf instead of turning on the TV.
If you are wanting to learn more about the benefits of reading, check out my blog on Why You Should Read Every Day.