You can take fish oil supplements or eat lots of turmeric. You can invest in a language class, puzzle books, or a few hours of exercise every week. There are countless methods to (allegedly) improve your memory and cognitive functioning with brain training exercises. But one of the cheapest, easiest, and most time-tested ways to sharpen your brain is right in front of your face. It’s reading.
The fact that reading is good for your brain isn’t surprising—there’s a reason parents are always on their kids’ cases to put down the device and pick up a good book. But there’s something astounding about how such an ordinary activity can improve your brain in so many ways. (Plus, here’s are some morning exercises to keep your brain sharp.)
Reading helps the brain to work harder and better
The most basic impact occurs in the area associated with language reception, the left temporal cortex. Processing written material—from the letters to the words to the sentences to the stories themselves—snaps the neurons to attention as they start the work of transmitting all that information. That happens when we process spoken language, too, but the very nature of reading encourages the brain to work harder and better. “Typically, when you read, you have more time to think,” says Maryanne Wolf, EdD, director of the UCLA Center for Dyslexia, Diverse Learners, and Social Justice. “Reading gives you a unique pause button for comprehension and insight. By and large, with oral language—when you watch a film or listen to a tape—you don’t press pause.” (These are the signs your brain is aging faster than you.)
And the benefits of reading continue long after you’ve put down that great book. A 2013 study published in the journal Brain Connectivity found that some of those benefits associated with reading persisted for five days. “We call that a shadow activity, almost like a muscle memory,” says Gregory Berns, PhD, lead author of the study and director of the Center for Neuropolicy at Emory University in Atlanta.
Reading energizes the brain
OK, you say, it’s hardly surprising that the language part of the brain would get a workout from reading. But reading also energizes the region responsible for motor activity, the central sulcus. That’s because the brain is a very exuberant play actor. When it is reading about a physical activity, the neurons that control that activity get busy as well. You may not actually be riding a horse when you’re reading Seabiscuit, but your brain acts as if it is. And the more parts of your brain that get a workout, the better it is for your overall cognitive performance. (Also, check out the habits that improve your memory the best.)
Not all reading is created equal
It’s important to note that not all reading is created equal. Preliminary findings from a series of experiments conducted at Stanford University indicates that close literary reading, in particular, gives your brain a workout. MRI scans of people who are deep into a Jane Austen novel showed an increase in blood flowing to areas of the brain that control both cognitive and executive function. This is compared to the very limited effects seen in participants who casually skimmed a paragraph at a bookstore. (To learn more about the brain, check out these facts that will blow your mind.)
Reading with dyslexia
If you (or someone you know is) has trouble reading or even has dyslexia, you can still reap the benefits of reading. In a previous study published in the journal Neuron, researchers found 100 hours of remedial reading classes improved the quality of the brains’ white matter in children between the ages 8 to 10 who were below-average readers. White matter refers to the tissue that carries signals between areas of gray matter. This is where the processing of information takes place. The researchers’ conclusion: The brains of these children had begun to rewire themselves in ways that could benefit the entire brain, not only the reading-centric temporal cortex.
Matthew Cohen/rd.com, Apple by Aguiardesign
The effects of reading on a screen
The ability to read closely is something that has value. In her new book, Reader, Come Home, Wolf notes that even she, as someone who reads for a living, has found her ability to concentrate on the written word fading as more of what we read is on a screen. “Unfortunately, this form of reading is rarely continuous, sustained, or concentrated,” she writes. That sets up a vicious cycle. Without the sustained exercise of our reading “muscles,” the brain loses its ability to control the intricate processes that allow us to read deeply.
Of course, there’s an easy solution. Turn off your phone and your computer, set aside a good hour or two—and just read. Need help focusing? Try these superfoods to better focus your brain.