Tyson Adams

Putting the 'ill' back in thriller

Reading is good for the brain…. d’uh

I may have mentioned it before, but I am a science nerd. It may also be painfully obvious that I like reading. And before you ask, yes I do wear glasses and own a lab coat. I can fancy dress as anything from a doctor to a scientist.

What I love about science is the way it goes about trying to understand the universe. In fact science even came up with a few studies on how reading is fantastic for you. Psychologists from Washington University used brain scans to see what happens inside our heads when we read stories. They found that ‘‘readers mentally simulate each new situation encountered in a narrative”. The brain weaves these situations together with experiences from its own life to create a mental synthesis. Reading a book leaves us with new neural pathways – although that’s hardly surprising nor unique.

Nicole Speer, also from Washington University, utilized brain-imaging to look at what happens inside the brains of participants while they read. She discovered that as people read, they are constructing a virtual reality inside their heads every time they read. That’s a fancy way of saying they imagined the stuff they were reading.

A reader’s brain in action.

So. The book is better… Who’d have thunk?

It is good to have some evidence that our brains get more out of reading. Without evidence, claims are not worth the air they consume. Just ask anyone who has tried to get conspiracy theorists to provide evidence for their claims.

Another study scanned readers’ brains to see how reading compared to web browsing (reading plus).*

Each volunteer underwent a brain scan while performing web searches and book-reading tasks.

Both types of task produced evidence of significant activity in regions of the brain controlling language, reading, memory and visual abilities.

However, the web search task produced significant additional activity in separate areas of the brain which control decision-making and complex reasoning – but only in those who were experienced web users. (Source)

Brain activity in a personal not used to using the web while reading

Brain activity in web newcomers: similar for reading and internet use
Surfing the net brain in action.

The researchers said that, compared to simple reading, the internet’s wealth of choices required people to make decisions about what to click on in order to get the relevant information. So not only is reading good, but exploring and interacting with what you are reading is even better. Surfing the net, getting lost in a fictional world…. wait that is the same point twice. Anyway, it leads to even more brain activity.

Now before you all go in search of internet porn to enlarge your brain, remember that you’re meant to be reading the porn sites for the articles.

 

* It took me a bit of searching to find the original journal paper for this study. The BBC article and original press release were easy. A personal gripe of mine is when press releases and news articles fail to link to the original article so that we can fact check the claims. So as part of growing your brain with reading and internet browsing, please spend some time searching for and reading the original scientific papers that are reported. And if it wasn’t peer reviewed, then it could have been made up, like that rubbish about us only using 10% of our brain.

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2 thoughts on “Reading is good for the brain…. d’uh

  1. Would be interesting to compare reading, surfing the net and watching a movie.

    The only problem with trying to get an original scientific paper is getting access to it without belonging to a university or research organisation. Most publishers are shy to publish more than the summary online and the price for getting the whole paper is ridiculous (US$31.50 for the paper on Google brains). The only other way is to email one of the authors for a copy (if the abstract gives an address), or troll the internet for a downloadable version.

    • I’m on Research Gate and you can message authors there if they haven’t already uploaded the paper for viewing. Another option is Sci-Hub.

      But what I’m asking of the media isn’t that they make the original paper available. Just linking to the abstract would be enough. It allows for quick basic fact checking and context.

      E.g. there was one article in the news recently about honey being awesome for wound healing. After tracking down the unlinked paper it became painfully obvious from the abstract that the claims had zero value. It was a preliminary trial on 8 horses that had mixed results. Hardly something to be touting for humans. But they were touting it because someone wrote that press release to make sure the funding was going to keep coming.

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