The science and importance of reading (Part 2)

By Brenden Bobby
Reader Columnist

Today’s article is a deeper dive into how your brain processes reading. Due to the nature of the complexity of neuroscience, much of this article will be condensed, and there will likely be several gaps in the facts. Our brains are extremely complex organs, so covering them in detail in fewer than 1,000 words would be virtually impossible.

If you’re curious to learn more detailed information about how our brains work, head to the library and check out one of its many medical and scientific resources, including The Great Courses DVDs, books and documentaries.

Last week, we learned that reading helps strengthen our brains in a way similar to how we bulk up our muscles through lifting weights. While vaguely alike, the actual processes involved are extremely different.

Our muscles are pretty simple: They’re a collection of cells arranged into fibrous tissue designed to expand and contract, which allows us to exert force and manipulate the world around us (or, in some cases, like the heart, the world inside us). When these cells are damaged through use, new cells form to take their place. The more frequently this happens, such as with exercise or a tough labor job, the more your body produces these cells to adapt to the changing conditions and make future tears less likely — one of the many contributing factors to why you may see a plateau effect when exercising.

Brain cells are unique among other cells in our bodies. Most cells are round, but brain cells — also called neurons — are somewhat rounded with a number of branch-like arms called dendrites and long tail-like structures called axons. 

Neurons are designed to create vast webs and connections with one another, almost like roads inside your skull. Axons function like interstate highways linking cities, while dendrites are similar to country backroads feeding into the city, or the nucleus of the cell. Interstate highways are great, but they don’t amount to much if there aren’t any backroads to gather all of the resources like grain from farms and logs from timberland and consolidate them in the city. In the case of your neurons, these things are moving and collecting chemicals to help you calculate things, recall memories and perform actions.

Some neurons can use the axons to travel, transporting their chemical resources and energy and moving around your brain. In doing so, they’ll rearrange things, set up shop and expand their own networks to create new and optimized connections within your brain.

So what exactly does that mean, and how does it pertain to reading?

It means that our bodies adapt to the situations in which we put them. Our brain cells adapt more quickly than any other cells in our entire body, while also living longer than any other cell we have. Your neurons optimize their positioning, network connections and circuitry based on your current situation and how you are utilizing your brain. Scrolling through social media is kind of like snacking on candy for our brains. It gives us little rushes when we scroll past things that make us laugh, which spark little shots of serotonin and dopamine, or making us upset when we scroll past a family member’s overtly political and factually questionable diatribe. This doesn’t really provide our brains any sustenance or exercise, but our brains enjoy it because of the immediate gratification provided by inputting a simple action and retrieving a randomized result.

Taking time to sit down and read a book triggers completely different areas of your brain, while offering similar short-term results. Time we spend reading material that genuinely challenges us triggers multiple areas of our brain. We’re translating a written code into spoken language, which triggers both the language centers and the parts of our brain that work to unwrap puzzles. As these neurons are stimulated, they’re redirected to perform more of these actions in anticipation of repeated behavior in the future.

That means your brain is essentially saying: “We’re in the middle of a problem. I’m going to reward myself with happy chemicals for solving pieces of the problem, and I will also shuffle around some processes to make these problems easier to solve and more rewarding moving forward.”

Luckily for us, many of the problems we encounter in life use the same optimizations that we gain from reading meaningful content. This includes decoding messages, solving puzzles, how to comprehend complicated emotions like empathy and critically thinking about our environments.

Studies have shown that stimulating these parts of your brain can help stave off things like dementia, improve memory and even slow the progression of Alzheimer’s. Those are some pretty huge rewards for very little investment; it would be like saying you could buy a Malibu mansion by just tossing your pocket change into a bucket twice a week for a couple of years.

Have you given my “10 days of reading books instead of social media” challenge a try? Maybe you’re struggling and just haven’t found the right book? If you’re afraid to ask for help or suggestions for fear of judgment, don’t worry; I’m an adult man that’s currently reading a children’s book about dragons. If I can admit that to an audience of 4,000-plus readers, then you have nothing to worry about when asking your local librarian for reading suggestions.

Stay curious, 7B.

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