If I tell you that there is one thing we could all do which would make us more imaginatives, make our memories better, probably improve our personal relationships and make us a nicer person, perhaps you would be left in a skeptical state.
And even more so, if I said it costs nothing and probably everybody can do it.
Doubtlessly, you have guessed by now what this script is all about: READING. Because there’s a clue in the title.
However, I’m not talking about the sort of reading that we all know is incredibly important. That is;
The sort of reading we do for education.
The sort of reading we do for administration purposes.
The sort of reading we do on social media.
The sort of reading which we have to do nowadays just to get through life.
Relatively, I’m talking about narratives, stories, fictions, articles or journals, the sort of reading where you are reading things inside another person’s head, where it takes you right inside the character’s emotions, feelings and actions, so you are seeing it from their perspective. That’s the sort of reading which is at best thought of pleasurable and at worst quite often considered as a waste of time.
I mean, I remember my favorite cousin telling me that, when she was a child, she was crazy about books but my oncle once ripped a novel out of her hands, saying that "if you have to read, at least read something useful".
Surprisingly, narratives and fictions are very useful indeed, in ways that we probably never previously suspected.
Apparently, it’s more important than any other forms of reading.
I have some new evidences which come rather astonishingly out of the brain sciences to support it.
First of all, some not-so-new evidence in 2013 revealed that, there was a series of experiments done by two psychologists. What they did was take people and ask them to read quite short passages from various types of books. Some of them were nonfiction, explanatory or learning books, and some of them where thrillers and plots where you read about events happening in a story but not very much about the people; you weren’t inside their heads. And the third sort was the sort of narratives and fictions, which is when you are reading things from the perspective of the characters.
After that, the researchers got the people to look at a series of photographs of people with very strong facial expressions and they were asked to judge from the expression alone what they thought was going on inside those people’s heads.
This was actually quite a standard test for something that we call
' Theory of Mind', which is for a faculty that we’re all pretty familiar with; we’ve got it to some extent or another.
And that’s the intuitive ability to see from the way a person is moving or expressing themselves what’s going in their head.
It allows us to just at least for a moment, to step outside of our own heads and see the world for a bit from another people’s point of view.
And the same faculty, by extension, opens up whole worlds to us because it allows us to imagine what it’s like to be somewhere else, doing something else, seeing it in a different way.
We can never know exactly what it’s like to be another person, but we can approximate it by inhabiting the stories of other people.
And thus, people who don’t have it are quite severely handicapped, particularly in social life- they are limited by a very limited imagination. Because without that ability to step outside yourself, it’s difficult to imagine anything.
Now, you don’t actually have to look at academic papers to see this effect.
We’re all quite familiar with it.
A few months ago, I was invited to a reading group which was for people passionate about reading. A lot of them had had severe depression or anxiety whenever they took a break from reading and they had come together to start a reading group.
The particular meeting I went to, they were reading ' Born a crime', the English novel from Trevor Noah, and I just got this bit where her mother, the heroine, had to decide between throwing him off the running bus or wildly negotiating with the driver. It did seem to me as some people cried that this quite simple act of reading fiction had really changed their lives; and in fact, in one case it actually saved a life. I know that!
At the moment, the question that occurred to me as an aspiring doctor of pharmacy was what on Earth is happening in people’s brains to have this rather profound effect, this pastime?
So, I just want to go a little bit over what is happening in the brain.
You probably know that our brains are made up of neurons, electrical cells, and that they join together to form pathways, which have electricity zapping back and forth endlessly. And that electricity that flows is our thoughts, our emotions and our feelings.
Some of the pathways are pretty similar in all of us because they’re actually built into our genes. We have got the connections between the two hemispheres of our brains, so that each side quite literally knows what the other is doing.
Quickly, allow me to illustrate the difference between speaking and reading because they are very different.
Speaking is something that is in our genes, we already have those pathways wired into us when we are born. All you have to do is, put a baby around people who are talking and sooner or later they will start to do it too, it’s natural.
But reading is not.
You could put a baby in a library, surrounded by books, from the day it’s born, and it would never start spontaneously reading. It has to be taught how to do it.
And this is the reason speech has been with us for at least 100,000 years, quite time for natural selection to actually get it wired into our brains.
But, reading probably started about 5,000 years ago and until 100 years ago, most people didn’t do it all.
So rather than being able to use those pre-wired, intuitive or pathways every time, every person who learns to read has to do it afresh.
And that means making new individual pathways, the sort that individuals do make all through their life.
Every time they have an experience, they will lay down a memory or a new habit; they create individual pathways, on top of the basic blueprint.
And that’s what we have to do when we read.
Quickly, when you look at the brain that’s speaking, it’s fairly forward: information zooms to the back of the head, visual cortex, then sort of chunks forward. As it chunks forward, it picks up memories of what it is looking at, until by the time it gets to the major language areas, it then able to put a word to it. And then it gets jogged on again, and that’s when we remember how to say it.
Quite literally, the motor area is then instructed to send instructions to our lips and to our tongues to actually make the word. That’s how speaking works.
And as I said, it’s natural, those pathways are there already.
But, reading is a very different kettle of fish. When we see abstract symbols written down, our brain has do far more works. When we are learning to read, we have to create all those new connections In many many parts of the brain.
There are very complicated networks that are being formed in the brain when we read. So your brain is doing a lot more work, it’s connecting far more parts.
If you like, it’s more holistic experience. It forces you to use parts of the brain that aren’t usually used.
More than that, one reason why it’s so widespread is that, when we read things about somebody doing something, run for their life or they’re frightened or they’re tortured or they’re depressed or they’re screaming, what happens in the brain of the reader is that those same bits of the brain that would have been active if they were doing it, become active.
Admittedly, not quite to the same extent or we’d act out of everything we read, and we can usually inhibit them, enough not to do that, but if it carried on in intensity, you would act it out.
Because the important thing about reading is that you’re not just learning what’s going on in that person head.
You, too, to a certain extent are experiencing it. And there’s a very big difference there. It’s the same with everything.
With pain, if you watch or ready about somebody in pain, the same bits of the brain that would be active if you were feeling the pain will become active as well. And some people feel this so much that they actually do feel and report pain. Same anger, same with any emotion, same even with quite complicated intellectual things, like judgements, moral judgments, and so on.
Now, this is the new information which has really only come out last year. Some researchers decided to see if they could actually see inside the brain what was going on. We already knew from the earlier work that, people become at least temporarily more sensitive to other people’s feelings once you’ve read a book or been reading some fiction.
These researchers set out to see if this was something that could actually be seen inside the brain, physically. So they had a lot of students reading a passage of a particularly engaging and exciting novel with a lot of inside character driven stuff. And they had the people read just 30 pages a night for five nights in a row.
And they took brain scans before the people started doing this exercise to get a baseline of what their brains looked like before. Then they had them read, and every night after they had read a passage, they came in the next morning and they had their brains scanned again. And everyday there were differences.
The differences are, as the week went on and they read a passage each night, the neurons got thicker and denser. And spread all over the brain.
Basically, what these people seemed to be doing was giving themselves a really good workout.
In fact, the brain scans looked more or less what you’d expect to find if this people had lived the events that they had been reading about. They had actually lived an experience, and it had become part of the architecture of their brain.
So in conclusion, I’m giving this message; which is that your brain needs a workout as much as your body. And reading seems to be one of the best workouts you can get. And not only Is it good for you but it’s also good for our society as a whole because the brain is like a muscle: the more you force yourself through books to take other people’s perspectives, to sympathize with other people, the more empathetic a society we will have. And if there’s anything that we need sorely and greatly today; It is empathy.
From a brother,