I am excited today to feature ADD and Executive Brain Functioning Coach, Madelyn Griffith-Haynie.
I’ve had the good fortune to become good friends with Madelyn this past year when I began following her uber informative and always entertaining blog articles about everything brain related. It’s no surprise that Madelyn has a huge following, but it was to my delighted surprise when I invited Madelyn to my blog, asking if she’d like to be featured here as a guest, and she was eager and happy to accept.
Madelyn has written a fantastic article on the importance of reading books and explains in her post, just how far the information we retain from reading can help us relate to others, how reading benefits us as we age, the beneficial impact reading has on warding off Alzheimer’s disease, and much more!
Reading a book has the power to reshape your brain
and improve your ability to relate to others
© Madelyn Griffith-Haynie, CTP, CMC, ACT, MCC, SCAC
from the Executive Functioning Series
Reading more but enjoying it less?
Thanks to our ability to scroll through endless words on our computers, tablets and smart phones, more people are reading than ever before.
Still, while the act of reading itself has increased, there is a significant difference between reading anything and reading a book that pulls you into the mind of the author as you take a mental vacation.
Even hours of reading on FaceBook, or skipping from blog to blog reading multiple articles on various subjects, does not seem to have the same positive effect as reading a novel, a memoir or a carefully curated collection of short-stories.
And the more time we spend online, the less time we have for reading those wonderful books on our TBR lists (“To Be Read”).
That’s a real shame, too, because reading a good book is not only an enjoyable, affordable “vacation” that broadens our perspective, it turns out that science has discovered that it actually improves our brain functioning in ways that translate to improved thinking, mood, functional intelligence, more positive and productive connections in our lives, and so-much-MORE.
The impact of a BOOK
Reading a book not only gives us access to someone else’s mindset and world view, it also seems to increase our ability to empathize with people in our day to day lives.
I’m sure that most of us who are avid readers are well acquainted with the feeling of stepping into another world while we read. Most of us also find that our view of our “real” world changes for days afterwards, even when we are not actively thinking about the story-line, the subject matter or the characters.
In my own experience, for example, after spending an evening with a character I could see clearly in my mind’s eye, for a few days following I have often felt like I was reacting as they might have. Sometimes I have the almost eerie sensation that I have taken on that character’s mannerisms.
Science has discovered that there’s a brain-based reason for that experience.
“We already knew that good stories can put you in someone else’s shoes in a figurative sense. Now we’re seeing that something may also be happening biologically.” ~ neuroscientist Professor Gregory Berns
Being captured by the world of a book with a strong narrative can trigger measurable changes in the brain — changes that linger for at least five days after reading.
Reading books and changing brain function
Research from Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia (published in the journal Brain Connectivity) found that reading a book can increase neural connectivity in a manner that mimics muscle memory.
Study changes were registered in two key areas of the brain:
- the left temporal cortex, an area associated with language receptivity, as well as, surprisingly,
- the brain’s primary sensory motor region, the central sulcus, associated with sensations and movement.
Neurons of the second region have been associated with tricking the mind into thinking it is actually doing something by merely thinking yourself through the activity.
Referred to as “grounded cognition,” that is the explanation given for the effectiveness of the practice of mental rehearsal used effectively by many athletes.
Thanks to the phenomenon of grounded cognition, it seems that merely thinking about the specifics of an athletic activity can activate the neurons associated with the physical doingof that activity.
In some cases, practicing mentally has been reported to improve performance almost as much as if the athletes had strained and sweated their way through an actual practice session.
Who knew that the same areas could be activated by narrative reading?
“The anterior [front] bank of the sulcus contains neurons that control movement of parts of the body,” Berns, lead author of the study above explained. He went on to say that the posterior [back] region contains neurons that receive sensory input from various parts of the body.
The enhanced connectivity in the posterior region suggests that the act of reading “transports” the reader into the body of the protagonist. Amazing, right?
About the Study
21 students took part initially. All participants read the same book – Pompeii, a 2003 thriller by Robert Harris.
“The story follows a protagonist, who is outside the city of Pompeii and notices steam and strange things happening around the volcano,”explained Berns. “It depicts true events in a fictional and dramatic way. It was important to us that the book had a strong narrative line.”
For 19 days the students read an assigned portion of the book in the evening. They underwent fMRI scans the following morning. Once the book was finished, the study continued for an additional five days as their brains were scanned daily.
“Even though the participants were not actually reading the novel while they were in the scanner, they retained this heightened connectivity,”noted Berns. “We call that a ‘shadow activity,’ almost like a muscle memory.”
The changes could not only be seen on the scans during the days when they were reading, they remained evident for the five days once the subjects had finished the book. This finding seems to prove that the impact was not just an immediate reaction but one that has a lasting effect – likely to last longer than the five additional days that were part of the study design.
But wait! There’s more . . .
More effects from bookish vacations
Linguistics studies like the ones included in a fascinating book by reading expert Maryanne Wolf, author of Proust and the Squid, tell us that our brain changes substantially as the result of learning to read.
Later research has shown that
those beneficial changes continue AS we read.
One effect, according to a study published in the journal PLOS ONE, is that losing yourself in a narrative book is highly likely to increase your sense of empathy across the board.
Netherlands researchers designed two experiments that showed that people who were “emotionally transported” experienced an increase in their ability to understand and identify with the feelings of others. And it happens quickly, too.
“In two experimental studies, we were able to show that self-reported empathic skills significantly changed over the course of one week for readers of a fictional story by fiction authors Arthur Conan Doyle or José Saramago,” they wrote in their findings.
“More specifically, highly transported readers of Doyle became more empathic, while non-transported readers of both Doyle and Saramago became less empathic.”
Not only that, evidence is continually emerging that reading “content-dense” material (i.e., books not tweets) is what the science field refers to as “neuro-protective,” increasing the likelihood that we will remain mentally sharp as we age and decreasing our chances of developing one of the dementias.
Related posts on ADDandSoMuchMORE.com:
You don’t HAVE to lose it as you age
Good news on brain-aging from The Nun Study
Another Mental Aging Study
According to a study of 294 participants over an average of 5.8 years of annual cognitive function testing and an average age of death at 89, the news is great for readers – not so great for those who lounge around texting or watching television.
Published in the online issue of the journal Neurology, they reported that those who engaged throughout their lives in mentally stimulating activities like reading experienced slower memory decline compared to those who did not.
In addition, individuals who exercised their minds later in life had a 32% lower rate of mental decline compared to their peers with average mental activity. The average rate of decline in the group with infrequent mental activity was 48% faster than the average group.
“Our study suggests that exercising your brain by taking part in activities such as these across a person’s lifetime, from childhood through old age, is important for brain health in old age,” study author Robert. S. Wilson of the Rush University Medical Center in Chicago said in an interview.
“Based on [our findings], we shouldn’t underestimate the effects of everyday activities, such as reading and writing, on our children, ourselves and our parents or grandparents.”
Warding off Alzheimer’s disease?
According to research published in 2001 in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences [PNAS], adults who engage in hobbies like reading seem less likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease.
Lead author Dr. Robert P. Friedland, a University of Louisville clinical and research neurologist devoted to the study of brain disorders associated with aging, told USA Today in an interview:
“The brain is an organ just like every other organ in the body. It ages in regard to how it is used. Just as physical activity strengthens the heart, muscles and bones, intellectual activity strengthens the brain against disease.”
It’s important to note that the researchers identified only an association, not a clear cause-and-effect relationship.
“These findings may be because inactivity is a risk factor for the disease or because inactivity is a reflection of very early subclinical effects of the disease, or both,” they admitted in their study.
Read more about the study in the article from USA Today
TONS of other benefits
In further articles I will explore some of these benefits in more detail, but reading a book also has been shown to have positive effects in a great many other arenas, only a few listed below:
- Lifting depression & stress management (in only 6 minutes, by the way)
- Stronger and more reliable memory formation
- Better quality of sleep
- Improved “receptive” vocabulary
(the number of words that an individual recognizes & understands)
- Faster foreign language learning
(even when you only read books in your native tongue)
- Enhanced creativity & increased emotional intelligence, and
- Increased impetus to make a difference in the world we share
So what are you waiting for?
Grab one of those books you’ve been meaning to get around to reading, get comfortable and get to it. It turns out that relaxing on the couch is some of the most effective exercise you can get — but it only works when you are relaxing AS YOU READ a BOOK!
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After saying goodbye to her first career as an actor/director, award-winning ADD Poster Girl Madelyn Griffith-Haynie founded the ADD/EFD Coach Training field and co-founded the ADD Coaching field.
She now works with and supports, privately and in her comprehensive brain-based blog articles, individuals with all sorts of Executive Functioning challenges (prioritizing & planning, organization & follow-through, time, task & mood management and so-much-MORE). She has been coaching folks to “learn to drive the very brain they were born with” for over 25 years.
You might also be interested in some of the following articles
available right now – on her site and elsewhere.
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