The Science of Reading: How It Alters Brain Chemistry

If it isn’t evident from this website, I like to read. I grew up cutting my teeth on the Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings Series’, and I’ve expanded into all sorts of fiction, non-fiction, poetry, and much more. But the other day, I got to thinking, is there something happening in my brain when I read that creates positive feelings that my body then wants to recreate? (which is why I always want to read more)

In this post, we will investigate the science of reading and the ways in which it literally alters our brain chemistry. If, for some reason, you landed on this page but you’re looking for Book Reviews or Writing Tips, fear not! Just click those links I’ve provided to peruse the rest of the content I’ve been creating for y’all!

Subconscious Creation

the science of reading - subconscious creation

Reading can help to stimulate our creativity. When we are digesting a book, our minds are creating the world we are reading about, even if we don’t quite realize it. This process of subconscious creation improves our brain’s ability to visualize realities that are divergent from our own. When applied to the process of our own lives, it can be a very powerful way to increase our ability to visualize the future we desire and literally bring that desire into physical existence.

Many researchers have found that our process of creating visual imagery is basically automatic. In certain studies, participants demonstrated the ability to identify photos of objects faster if they had first read a sentence that described that object. This finding backs up the idea that we subconsciously bring up images or pictures of objects and characters when we read.

Improved Attention Span

the science of reading - attention span

Studies have shown that reading actually functions to improve our attention spans because, unlike television and social media, it’s not based on instant gratification. The sequential style of most books–with a clear beginning, middle, and end–helps our brain piece the story together in a similar sequence. Instead of rushing through and missing the details, reading helps our brain build a narrative piece-by-piece.

Neuroscientist Susan Greenfield has suggested that the Internet actually functions to split our attention, despite its ability to improve our short-term memory and multi-tasking capability. In her book, Mind Change, she discusses how Internet browsing typically involves jumping from tab-to-tab, which actually serves to decrease our long-term attention span. Reading, on the other hand, happens linearly and forces us to think about the information being presented as we absorb it more slowly. As a result, reading actually increases our overall attention span. This is especially true in children.

More Empathy

the science of reading - empathy

When we dive deep into a good book, we begin to put ourselves in the place of its characters. We imagine what it would be like to deal with their situations, how it would feel like to feel their love, and what they might’ve been thinking when they made that awful decision. Deep reading helps us put ourselves in the shoes of others, which is essential when practicing empathy towards others.

Because we get this practice of empathizing with how the characters in our stories might feel, we are more capable of doing so when we return to “real life”. In this way, reading makes us more empathetic towards the people we meet in our lives and more able to understand where they’re coming from instead of judging before knowing.

Facilitates New Connections

the science of reading - new connections

Brain connectivity is a concept that may be foreign to some. It was foreign to me when I first read about the study I’ll mention shortly. So, let’s take a second to define it. According to Scholarpedia, brain connectivity “refers to a pattern of anatomical links (“anatomical connectivity”), of statistical dependencies (“functional connectivity”) or of causal interactions (“effective connectivity”) between distinct units within a nervous system.”

In other words, brain connectivity refers to connections within certain parts of the brain, as well as from one part to another. As it relates back to the science of reading, a study at Emory University showed that reading actually improves connections between the left temporal cortex of the brain. Interestingly enough, these effects not only take place while we read but also last for several days after we set a book down.

Read and Experience

the science of reading - experience

Research has shown that there is very minimal difference between reading about an experience and actually living that experience. As far as your brain is concerned, those feelings of being completely enveloped in a good story are essentially equivalent to the feelings you’d experience if that story was your reality.

In the same study mentioned above at Emory University, researchers also found that reading increases activity in the central sulcus of the brain. This is the region responsible for primary sensory-motor activity. When reading, neurons in the central sulcus fire to create a very real sensation of experiencing the events we’re reading about. This phenomenon is known as grounded cognition, and it suggests that reading, quite literally, allows us to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes.

New White Matter

the science of reading - white matter

What is white matter? Much like the term ‘brain connectivity’, I had no idea when I set out to write this article. So, I looked it up. The definition I found goes like this: ”

“White matter is tissue in the brain composed of nerve fibers. The fibers (called axons) connect nerve cells and are covered by myelin (a type of fat). The myelin is what gives white matter its white color. Myelin speeds up the signals between the cells, enabling the brain cells to quickly send and receive messages. It also provides insulation for the fibers, preventing the brain from short-circuiting. White matter makes up about half of the brain, with gray matter making up the other half.” (Courtesy of Very Well Health)

As it refers to the science of reading, a study at Carnegie Mellon found that reading exercises can actually alter brain tissue in a good way. In children, the study found, specific reading improvement instructions caused the brain to physically rewire itself. In the process of doing so, the brain actually creates more white matter, which serves to improve communication within the brain. So we can see how reading can actually improve the brain’s ability to send and receive essential messages.

Increased Working Memory

the science of reading - memory

There are several processes at work when we read. These include, but are not limited to, visual and auditory processes, phonemic awareness, fluency, and comprehension. When compared with absorbing information through a visual medium, reading gives the brain more time to stop, think, process, and use our imagination to create images of the narrative being presented.

Through this method of processing information, we are lifting the equivalent of mental weights. We are training our brains to process information slowly and completely, and we are giving our imaginations space to form images and pictures, rather than relying on a visual medium to do it for us. Ongoing studies at the Haskins Laboratories for the Science of the Spoken and Written Word show that the type of processing that occurs when we read boosts overall brain activity and helps to keep our memory sharp.

So, What’s Your Next Read?

Now that we more closely understand the wonderful benefits of reading, which book will you pick up next? In my opinion, you can never go wrong with Tom Robbins, Daniel Quinn, or Edward Abbey, but there are so many authors out there to choose from. I’d love to know what you decide to pick up after reading this article.

I’d also love to know if you’ve experienced any of these benefits first hand, or if you’ve found other benefits of reading that I haven’t listed here. Now I know that reading literally changes my brain, and I’m so excited to keep on checking new books off my list!

Leave a comment below letting me know if you found this article helpful or if you’d like to see an article on a different topic entirely. I will respond as soon as possible and I appreciate and welcome any and all comments (although I do reserve the right to remove comments if I find them offensive or inappropriate).

I’d also be thankful if you choose to share these organization tips with others, especially if you found it particularly insightful or helpful. Be sure to tag @ballisterwriting on Facebook or Instagram if you do! The point of social media, after all, is to be SOCIAL! I’d like to contribute to a real conversation about how we continue to improve as a society and as individuals.

Here’s to Bettering Our Brains!

Tucker Ballister

2 thoughts on “The Science of Reading: How It Alters Brain Chemistry”

    • Thanks! I think reading before you go to bed is a great way to replace the screen time that so many of us get just before bed, which really can impact our sleep negatively!


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