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  • Writer's pictureBrendan Holba

The Transformative Power of Reading on the Brain

By: Brendan Holba

In today's fast-paced digital era, where information is available at our fingertips, it's easy to overlook the profound impact that reading can have on our brains. Beyond being a source of entertainment and knowledge, reading plays a significant role in shaping our cognitive abilities, enhancing our mental well-being, and expanding our horizons.

Reading engages multiple regions of the brain, stimulating cognitive processes such as attention, memory, and critical thinking. According to Dr. Gary Small, a professor of psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences at UCLA, "Reading activates neural circuits controlling vision, language, and learning and can lead to improved memory, thinking, and mood," As we read, our brains create mental images, imagine scenarios, and make connections between ideas. This mental exercise strengthens neural pathways, improving our overall cognitive function and enhancing our ability to solve problems and think creatively. No matter what the number says on your birthday cake, continuous reading is proven time and time again to benefit everyone's brain leading to lasting and dramatic effects in our everyday lives. Like weightlifting for the brain, reading fictional works has allowed me to strengthen my creative world-building skills. Exploring vivid new worlds created by authors has expanded my imagination and empowered me to visualize and develop unique storylines.

Reading also exposes us to a vast array of words and phrases, expanding our vocabulary and improving our language skills. Through reading, we encounter new words in context, which helps us understand their meaning and usage. A rich vocabulary not only enables clearer communication but also enhances our comprehension abilities, allowing us to grasp complex ideas and express ourselves more effectively. For young children and school-age children reading allows them to expand past the basic terms they have learned into a richer understanding of the world around them, but also the hidden curriculum that is in school. For adults, digging into deeper, more complex books will challenge us and allow us to grow not only in our understanding of the world around us but also give us an arsenal of new vocabulary to use in a variety of settings. Our vocabulary will grow, not only from reading complex text but also from reading a variety of pieces. Graphic novels, news articles, light novels, and deep historical text will not only teach us something but also grow our vocabulary in the long run. I always keep a dictionary app nearby while reading, allowing me to look up unfamiliar words and gain a deeper understanding of their impact within the paragraph. This practice has significantly contributed to expanding my language skills and improving my overall grasp of the written word.

When we immerse ourselves in a story, we gain insights into the thoughts, emotions, and experiences of the characters, and often times the author as well. This process of empathetic engagement fosters our emotional intelligence, enabling us to understand and relate to others better. Research has shown that readers tend to exhibit higher levels of empathy, as they are exposed to diverse perspectives and gain a deeper understanding of the human condition. Keith Oatley, a novelist and professor of cognitive psychology at the University of Toronto explains “Reading novels enables us to become better at actually understanding other people and what they’re up to.” Imagine being able to understand your loved ones simply by experiencing the various emotions we go through as we navigate the world of whatever we have chosen to sit down and read.

Books such as Malcolm X's autobiography and "Born A Crime" have profoundly impacted my viewpoints on people of color and their experiences in our country and the world. Through the firsthand accounts shared in these books, I gained a deeper empathy and understanding of the challenges they face, broadening my perspective and fostering a greater sense of empathy.

Reading has a calming effect on the brain and can serve as a form of relaxation and escape from the stresses of daily life. Engaging with a captivating book can transport us to different worlds, helping us unwind and reduce anxiety. Furthermore, reading stimulates the release of endorphins, the brain's natural "feel-good" chemicals, promoting a positive mood and overall mental well-being. For me, books serve as a palate cleanser, providing an escape from the challenges and worries of life. Whether I'm stressed, worried, or feeling overwhelmed, diving into a captivating story allows me to momentarily detach from reality and find solace in a new world, providing, sometimes much-needed mental respite.

Engaging in regular reading helps keep our brains active and agile, contributing to lifelong learning and brain health. Studies have shown that reading can slow cognitive decline and reduce the risk of conditions such as dementia and Alzheimer's disease. By challenging our minds with new information and perspectives, we build cognitive reserves that can benefit us throughout our lives. The researchers at the University of Illinois' Beckman Institute found that regular, engaged leisure reading can strengthen memory skills in older adults, laying the groundwork for better practices in preserving our mental abilities as we age. If you know someone with or who has dementia or Alzheimer's it can be challenging and oftentimes scary. Knowing that reading can strengthen our abilities to combat these degenerative diseases should be ammo enough to encourage more reading as we age. Find that genre you love and dig in! With the businesses of our lives, it can be tough, but recently in the last years I have tried diligently to dedicate an hour each day, and sometimes more on weekends, to reading. It may cut out on watching certain shows, but I find that almost all of my choices are better than watching a random show on some streaming app.

By immersing myself in the pages of captivating books, I will continue expanding my knowledge, nurturing my creativity, and strengthening my cognitive abilities. Reading serves as a gateway to understanding people, exploring new concepts, and staying informed about relevant societal issues. Moreover, each time I open a book, I embark on a new adventure, escaping to different worlds and expanding my imagination. Whether you are an avid reader or just a vacation book explorer, keep exploring the wonderful world of books!

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12 sept. 2023

Thank you for this. It’s great to see how important reading is on our brain health!

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