When’s the last time you read a novel?
If you answered college, or even high school, you may want to pick up a best seller, and maybe a classic too.
Research from Emory University’s Center for Neuropolicy
As we follow research on how to not just maintain a healthy brain, but to grow a bigger one, sometimes we find ourselves surprised. This is one of those situations. We found some research on how reading novels may improve our brains, which made us happy because all of us at Big Brain Place love to read. Gregory Berns, MD, PhD led team of researchers at Emory University who studied the effect of reading a novel on the brain. Dr. Berns, as well as other members of the team, are experts in MRI technology. The scientists established baseline MRI observations for the group of test participants. Then the participants read a section of a novel each day. On the following day, they got an MRI. That process continued until they completed the book. Then again, after participants had completed the novel, the researchers took another round of MRIs.
The scientific team found that (1) the readers had increased activity in the region of the brain that transfers visual information and that makes meaning out of those symbols printed on paper. (Remember, the participants weren’t reading while getting the MRI; the tests were conducted on the day after.) Additionally, (2) the section of the brain related to language, number processing and spatial cognition was also involved. The effect continued for a period after the book was completed. More on that research here. Dr. Berns, who also has degrees in physics and biomedical engineering, suspects there may be a benefit from reading towards building cognitive reserve. Cognitive reserve is a term developed by researchers who found certain individuals with the brain tangles associated with dementia but were seemingly unaffected. Researchers concluded they had built enough extra brain circuits to defeat dementia.
Research from Carnegie Mellon’s Center for Cognitive Brain Imaging
Another study, with quite different aims, also reported brain development benefit from reading. Marcel Just, PhD and Thomas Keller, PhD, wanted to determine if they could help school children who were poor readers catch up with better readers. Further, they wanted to see if it resulted in physical improvement in the children’s brain. Dr. Just is Professor of Psychology at Carnegie Mellon where he leads the Center for Cognitive Brain Imaging, and Dr. Keller is a Senior Research Psychologist.
There were 72 test participants: twenty-five with no reading issues and 47 poor readers. The children ranged from 8 to 10. The poor readers were separated into two groups: one group that would not receive intervention became the control group; the other had daily reading sessions for a six-month period. All of the kids had before and after MRIs. At the start, there was a detectable difference in the white matter between the on-grade readers and the poor readers. White matter is bundles of axons which connect various gray matter areas to each other and to the spinal cord. That difference was noted in the left frontal lobe of the brain, which is involved in language (among numerous other functions).
After the reading intervention, the children who had been in the daily reading program showed improvement in that brain area, whereas the control group didn’t. If you want to learn more about this research, here is the link.
This is obviously good news for those children who have difficulty learning to read. They can not only improve but also catch up with effort.
Read a Novel; Grow Some White Matter
I’m an avid reader. I won’t say that I’ve been reading many classics lately, or that I have literary discussions of them. But I love a mystery or a thriller. This gives me one more reason to keep reading.
Post script: isn’t it an amazing time to be alive? Brain scans of living people, as opposed to slicing cadaver brains, are a revolution in science that we are all benefitting from.