Recent research has shown that both reading and writing have a very positive impact on the brain and can even slow cognitive decline as we age. I like to think of it as a sort of Vulcan mind meld where instead of sharing the thoughts, experiences, memories, and knowledge of another physical person, we share these with characters in our heads as we write or read.
Whether you write books for a living, or just love to write, you know that typing out your thoughts (or putting pen to paper) can bring both great joy and immense frustration. And anyone who’s an avid reader has probably had an experience where the book he’s reading feels more real than the actual world around him.
Ever felt transported to distant realms and realities when curled up with a good book? Reading and writing are like boot camp for your brain, lighting up regions and sparking neurological pathways that would otherwise lie dormant and possibly become subject to atrophy. This indicates that reading and writing can help people remain sharp as they age and may even stave off Alzheimer’s disease.
Does Writing Make Us Smarter?
A growing body of research that focuses on the effects of writing (both by hand and typing) on the brain found that writing does make us smarter because it integrates three key brain processes:
- Visual – as you write, you see the paper or computer monitor in front of you and control the way the words look on the page by how you space lines, use paragraphs, and add subheadings.
- Motor – writing forces you to use fine motor skills to type on a keyboard by touch or form letters to create words.
- Cognitive – remembering where keys are on a keyboard or how to shape letters with your pen initiates a specialized type of feedback loop in the brain.
Humans are hardwired for storytelling. Some of us feel compelled to write the stories; others love the entertainment stories offer. Most writers regularly do both – read and write stories – giving them a unique perception of the world. Alice Flaherty, a writer and neuroscientist theorizes that writers are wired up differently than the rest of the population. She wrote an interesting book called The Midnight Disease that explores literary neuroscience and what drives the creative brain. She includes case studies from the lives of well-known writers that delve into what drives them to write – what ignites the spark and what puts it out.
As storytellers, writers have great power. They can spark emotions, plant thoughts, and sow new ideas into the fertile ground of the brain. A great story must turn on the switch that lights up the brain’s desire to learn what happens next. My crime thrillers do just that – make the reader stay up way too late reading and turning pages just to find out what happens.
Readers Are Smarter and Nicer People
Reading makes you smarter and nicer. Think that’s a pretentious statement? Dr. Keith Oatley, doesn’t think so. Oatley, professor of cognitive psychology at University of Toronto published a 2009 study showing that people who regularly read fiction have a greater capacity for understanding others and empathy. A 2010 study found similar results in preschool children, indicating that those who had more stories read to them had a sharper mental perception of the intentions of others.
Deeply engaged reading, as opposed to superficial reading like we do when skimming a newspaper or magazine in the rack, greatly impacts intellectual and emotional development. When you become so immersed in a book that you’re no longer aware of the world around you, you’re engaged in deep reading. Immersive reading allows you to absorb a story’s rich detail, allusion, themes, and metaphors. Only fully engaged readers can experience the indescribable sensation of being transported to another reality and experience life through the fictional characters.
Specialized neural circuits form in the brain when you learn to read as a child. As you engage in deep reading, you strengthen these neural pathways. Their strength depends on how vigorously and often you utilize them. Just like you’ve got to exercise your body regularly to stay fit, you’ve got to exercise these acquired reading circuits in the brain to keep them sharp.
Read to get the joke. Every episode of Seinfeld, The Sopranos, and The Simpsons refers to literature at least once, either directly or indirectly. Have you ever watched a segment of your favorite sitcom and realized that you didn’t get the joke because you goofed off and didn’t read A Streetcar Named Desire (or other literary work) in high school? Start reading and start getting the jokes.
Start developing your reading and writing Vulcan mind meld now. Even if you never plan to write a book, keep a daily journal of thoughts and observations. If you need to read more, make a list of three books to read over the next three months and stick to your commitment. Cross each book off the list as you finish it. You can even write about what you liked and didn’t like about it in your journal. It will change your life and change the lives of those you touch as your capacity for understanding the human condition grows.
Image credit: duckieandsoupreadtogether [dot] com, seinfeld [dot] wikia [dot] com