I'm in grad school right now, and we've been reading three of Irish writer Samuel Beckett's very challenging novels. TBH, the reading sort of makes me feel like my mind is crawling through a maze to understand the words, simply because the prose is so dense, and the ideas are pretty damn existential. While I enjoy it, it also legit makes my brain hurt as I'm taking notes and trying to process everything. But you know what keeps me going on those nights when I'm burning the midnight oil with a big ol' book? Remembering how reading changes your brain for the better. Even if it feels a little difficult now, I know that it's keeping things healthy up top.
The benefits your brain can reap from reading are no joke. When you challenge yourself to engage with dense literary texts, you're literally exercising your brain and improving your long-term ability to think critically. For example, a 2012 study from Stanford University, which enlisted the help of radiologists, neurobiological experts, humanities scholars, and literary Ph.D. candidates, showed that literary reading can have a really significant effect on the way your brain works.
Basically, the experiment went like this: The researchers tracked individuals' blood flow to the brain as they read excerpts of a novel by Jane Austen. The study participants were first told to give the text a leisurely skim, and then they were asked to read the text more closely, as if doing it for school or an exam. The study was intended to show how your brain is not only affected by what you read, but how you read something, as well as the overall value of studying literature.
The initial results showed that during close reading, there's a serious increase in blood flow to certain parts of the brain.
Specifically, the researchers saw increased blood flow to a part of the brain referred to as "executive function," which is associated with things like critical thinking and paying close attention to tasks. And while the blood flow also increased during the more leisurely reading, it happened in different parts of the brain, not just the executive function area. But hey, I'm pretty sure any increased blood flow up there is a good thing, right?
But don't scoff if you aren't highlighting your way through Baldwin and Tolstoy right now. Literary scholar Natalie Phillips, who led the Stanford research, said both types of reading — leisurely and focused — "create distinct patterns in the brain that are far more complex than just work and play." Plus, exercising complex brain function and getting the blood flowing up top aren't the only benefits of cracking open a good read, no matter what it is or how dense the literature may be.
Reading can also create positive growth psychologically, and it can even improve your levels of compassion and empathy.
That's right, folks. Reading can make you a better person. The results of a 2013 study from Emory University showed that your brain actually remains changed for a few days after reading a novel.
According to the research, reading can help improve the connections made in your brain, even while it's in a resting state — as in, even when you aren't reading or otherwise challenging your brain to perform a task. The researchers on the study tracked 21 students' brains as they all read the same novel, using MRI scans on the mornings after they were given reading assignments, as well as on mornings when they hadn't read anything the night before. The students' brain activity was also recorded as they were doing quizzes about the reading, and during a resting state, too. Not so surprisingly, the researchers found greater activity and increased connections in the participants' brains on the mornings after they did the reading assignments than on mornings when the students didn't do any reading.
But what's really wild about the results was that the researchers found that a totally different part of the brain was activated while the participants were reading — a region of the brain that's associated with physical sensation and movement, which makes it more possible to "transport" yourself into the body of the narrator in the book and feel what they're feeling. Neuroscientist Gregory Berns, the director of Emory’s Center for Neuropolicy and lead author of the study, explained these awesome findings:
The neural changes that we found associated with physical sensation and movement systems suggest that reading a novel can transport you into the body of the protagonist.
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.
Did anyone else just get chills, or is it just me?
So, in a way, you really can walk a mile in someone else's shoes, or at least imagine what it feels like to do so. As a result, your might just grow your understanding and compassion of others in the process.
If that's not reason enough to open a book, I don't know what is, my friends.