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Reading Novels Can Change Our Brains, Study Says

Reading Novels Can Change Our Brains, Study Says

Did you ever notice how some of the smartest people you know are readers? They seem to be well-spoken, cultured, and eloquent. Not only that, but they also seem to have good imaginations to go with it. I have noticed this, and have always wondered if there was a connection between these traits and their hobby of reading.

Writing a novel can be a long, complicated, and daunting process.  On the other side of the coin as a reader, what does reading a novel with a story of highs and lows do to your brain? Do your brain connections stay flat and consistent? Or do they change? And if they do change, how does it affect you? And how long are they there for?

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Researchers performed an fMRI on the participants

Based on a study done by Emory University, research shows that reading novels can make changes to the brain. For this research, the researchers asked 21 students to read 1/9 part of the novel, Pompeii by Robert Harris each night for 9 consecutive days. For the 9 consecutive mornings following the nights of reading the novel, the researchers performed an fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) on the participants in a resting state. The researchers did the fMRIs for the full 9 consecutive days, as well as on the 5 days preceding the start of the 9 days and the 5 days after it, which made it a total of 19 days of testing.

Increases in brain connectivity were observed

Interestingly, the morning fMRIs showed increases in brain connectivity. These connections increased significantly on story days, with some of the highest arousal levels of brain activity happening during the climaxes of the story. Some of these brain connections stayed on with the reader as exhibited by the 5 days of fMRIs right after the participants finished reading the novel, and some disappeared after they have finished reading the novel. The short-term changes originated close to the left angular gylus and the long-term changes in the somatosensory cortex. The researchers interpreted the short-term changes originating from the left angular gylus of the brain to be related to perspective taking and story comprehension, which suggests that reading stories may strengthen the language processing regions of the brain.

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On the other hand, they have interpreted the long-term changes to be connected to embodied semantics, which happens when our brain provides motor representations to words. An example would be how thinking of “walking” provides you with the same brain activity as you would have when you are actually physically walking.

How it works

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    This second set of results makes sense because I remember that when I was a young girl reading young adult novels, I always felt like I was one of the characters. I felt like I was physically moving along with them throughout the story, even if I was only reading the words in a book. After reading the novel, that heightened movement in my brain probably stayed and provided me with more brain action because I felt like I was able to transfer this increased brain activity to other activities in my daily life. I felt like I became more imaginative and creative. Just how valid my experience was, I can’t tell. But it seems to agree with what the researchers found out.

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    The Conclusion

    Ultimately, the results of the research suggested that yes, reading novels changes your brain. The researchers were, however, unsure of how long these effects last. If you don’t like to read novels, maybe the results of this research can encourage you to start reading.

    Novels do transport you to another world you have never been to, broadens your imagination, provides entertainment and makes a good topic for a conversation.  And if you do already love reading, keep reading. Like they say, there is nothing better than reading a good book.

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    More by this author

    Sarah Bonander

    Writer, Human Resources Professional

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    Last Updated on October 17, 2018

    7 Natural (And Highly Effective) Ways to Improve Memory

    7 Natural (And Highly Effective) Ways to Improve Memory

    How is your memory? Is your cognitive function as strong as you’d like it to be?

    If not, then you’re definitely going to be interested in the memory improvement tips I’ll be sharing with you in this article.

    Despite what you might think – or have been told – improving your ability to recall information is certainly possible. You just need to know the right ways to do it. (Don’t worry, as you won’t need to make any significant lifestyle changes.)

    So how to improve memory? Let’s dive straight into the first of seven easy ways to improve your memory significantly.

    1. Meditate

    We live in a world of non-stop, 24/7 information. It’s like a waterfall that’s endlessly pouring news, data, facts and figures into our conscious minds.

    Unfortunately, our brains are not designed to absorb this tremendous amount of information. It’s no wonder then, that most people struggle to remember information and recall things.

    Even if you believe you have a good memory and are comfortable with multi-tasking, you’ll also be aware that there’s only so much information your brain can process at one time. And research suggests that the more information and distractions, the harder it is for you to transfer information to your long-term memory.[1]

    Fortunately, meditation can help you out.

    Even if you just meditate for 10 minutes per day, you’ll boost your ability to focus, which in turn, will make it easier for you to remember important facts.

    If you need help in shifting into a meditative state, I recommend trying an app like Headspace – which can assist you to achieve this in a convenient and structured way.

    And don’t forget, meditation doesn’t just have to be closing your eyes and sitting in a lotus position. Some people prefer to simply take a short walk in nature. This clears and calms their mind, and still provides the all-important boost to their focus.

    2. Get plenty of sleep

    If you’re sleep deprived or have not been sleeping well, then I’m guessing you’re not remembering well either. This is because sleep and memory are intimately connected.

    If you have a busy life and regularly find yourself not getting enough sleep, then this will negatively impact your cognitive abilities – including your memory.

    How much sleep should you be getting?

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    Well, according to the National Sleep Foundation, you need a minimum of seven to nine hours of sleep per night. If you get this amount of sleep regularly, then within just a few days, you’ll see a tangible improvement to your ability to remember and recall things.

    Now, I’ll be honest with you, maintaining a proper sleep cycle is not always easy (especially when the latest Netflix series has just been released!). But if you care about improving your short-term and long-term ability to remember things, then it’s critical that you try to get at least the recommended amount of sleep every night.

    Are there ways to hack the sleep cycle?

    Yes, there are.

    Try these three things:

    • Have a fixed bedtime (preferably before 10pm)
    • Don’t eat too late
    • Make sure your bedroom is as dark as possible

    Sleeping is a precious activity. It regenerates your body, clears your mind, and helps with the storing and retrieval of information.

    However, don’t sleep just yet, as I want to tell you about another great way to increase memory…

    3. Challenge your brain

    When was the last time you challenged your brain?

    I don’t mean challenged in the sense of overeating or undersleeping. I’m referring to stretching your mental capabilities through things like crossword puzzles, Sudoku and memory games.

    To expand your memory bank, and to make your recall razor-sharp, you need to continually challenge your brain.

    Feedback from Lifehack readers such as yourself, has suggested that brain training apps are a super-effective way of doing this. Used regularly, these apps can enhance your focus, attention span, problem-thinking ability and memory.

    There are hundreds of these apps available (most of them for free), but I recommend starting out with one of the big three:

    • Peak (Android/iOS, free, 10 million+ downloads)
    • Lumosity (Android/iOS, free, 10 million+ downloads)
    • Elevate (Android/iOS, free, 5 million+ downloads)

    If you normally spend a chunk of your week playing computer games, then instead of shooting and killing your enemies, why not let some of them live – while you put your attention into boosting your brain power!

    Challenging your brain will strengthen your neural pathways and enhance your mental abilities. But don’t just take my word for it, try one of the apps above and see the positive benefits for yourself.

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    4. Take more breaks

    When I think back to my days as a budding entrepreneur, I distinctively remember working all the hours under the sun – and many under the moon too!

    At that time, I believed that breaks were for the weak, and to become wealthy and successful, I needed to shed blood, sweat and tears.

    However, I was wrong.

    Taking regular breaks is the best way to keep yourself productive, creative and alive to opportunities. It’s also the best way to learn new information.

    Let me explain.

    Typically, when studying lots of new information, most people will spend hours reading it – in an attempt to learn and remember the content as quickly as possible. Unfortunately, they’ve overlooked something.

    Namely, extended study sessions are rarely a good thing, as your ability to retain information naturally declines after a certain period of time.

    It’s similar to physical exercise. You wouldn’t attempt to train vigorously for four hours in a row. Instead, you’d take regular breaks to give your lungs, heart and muscles adequate time to recover. Failing to do this will result in muscle cramps and overexertion.

    It’s the same with your brain. If you overload it with information, you’ll suffer from mental fatigue.

    What’s the answer?

    Make sure you take regular breaks when learning new information. I recommend at least a 10-minute break every hour. (You may also want to take a look at the Pomodoro Method.)

    If you don’t want to be as regimented as that, then take breaks as soon as you find yourself losing the ability to focus on the new material. Your brain will thank you – and your learning aptitude will move up a level.

    5. Learn a new skill

    I love this quote, as it’s 100% true – but frequently overlooked:

    “Learning never exhausts the mind.” – Leonardo da Vinci

    From my experience of helping to develop the careers of dozens of Lifehack employees, I can definitively say that participating in meaningful and purposeful activities stimulates the mind. It also reduces stress and enhances health and well-being.

    Let me give you an example of this:

    Imagine you work for a global financial institution in one of their call centers. You take over 100 calls a day – many of them complaints. When you started the job a few months back, you were excited to be in full-time employment and working for a household name.

    Unfortunately, your initial enthusiasm quickly turned into frustration.

    The endless complaint calls began to take their toll on you. And the supervisors irritated you too, as they were far too interested in micro-managing you – rather than letting you work in your own way.

    Now, in the story above, the ending could be that you put up with a job you didn’t like, and led a dull and frustrated working life for years and years. However, an alternative ending is this: you channeled your dissatisfaction in to learning a new skill (computer coding). It took you a year or two to get up to speed, but it allowed you to successfully upgrade your career – and the ongoing learning made the call centre job much more bearable.

    Clearly, learning new skills gives you impetus, focus and something to aim for. Your brain loves to learn, and you should tap into this by always seeking our new information. And when learning becomes a habit, you’ll find your ability to remember and recall things effortlessly, becomes a habit too.

    6. Start working out

    If you’re not already working out regularly, then here’s another reason to do so:

    Exercising for 20-30 minutes three times a week will improve your long-term memory.

    Regular exercise increases blood flow in your body and supplies the brain with extra oxygen and nutrients. And a well-nourished brain is a well-functioning brain!

    “But I just don’t have the time?,” I hear you say.

    Not a problem.

    A research has shown that a daily burst of 60 seconds of high-intensity exercise, offered many of the benefits of the longer exercise routines.[2] So, if you’re short on time – now you know what to do.

    Interested in getting started?

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    Here are five different ways that will help you work out:

    • Join a gym
    • Join a sports team
    • Buy a bike
    • Take up hiking
    • Dance to your favorite music

    7. Eat healthier foods

    I’m sure you’ve heard the expression: “You are what you eat.”

    This applies to your brain too.

    The food that you eat helps determine your brain’s capacity to store and recall information. A poor diet (think junk food + soda!) harms not just your physical health, but your mental health too.

    Fortunately, there are several foods that are especially good for your brain and your memory. These include: blueberries, celery and dark chocolate. But anything high in antioxidants will have a positive effect on your brain and memory.

    Conversely, highly-processed foods and those loaded with sugar will have a negative impact on your memory. This is due to them providing insufficient nutrients for your brain – leading you to easily suffer from mental fatigue.

    Want to be mentally healthy? Then eat and drink an abundance of these for brain health:

    • Turmeric – helps new brain cells grown
    • Broccoli – protects the brain against damage
    • Nuts – improves memory
    • Green tea – enhances brain performance, memory and focus[3]
    • Fish oilfish oil supplements can increase your brain power

    Here’re more brain food options that improve memory!

    Final thoughts

    I sincerely hope these seven memory boosting ways that I’ve covered in this article will be of help to you.

    You don’t need to implement them all. I suggest just trying the ones that appeal to you.

    But, if you’re serious about dramatically improving your memory, then make a start right now on adopting one or more of the ways I’ve suggested. I’m confident you won’t regret it.

    Featured photo credit: Eric Ward via unsplash.com

    Reference

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