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On the effects of reading on the brain
On the effects of reading on the brain

In fact, by nature, our brain is not suitable for reading: this ability develops only in those who are specially taught to distinguish between letters. Regardless, this “unnatural” skill has changed us forever: we can imagine places we’ve never been, solve complex cognitive riddles, and (perhaps) get smarter with every book we read. We figure out how we manage to feel in the shoes of the character of our favorite book and why it is worth learning to read as early as possible.

Rebuilding the brain

French neuroscientist Stanislas Dehan jokes that the children involved in his research feel like astronauts when they lie down in an MRI machine that resembles a spaceship capsule. During the tests, Dean asks them to read and count in order to track their brain function. The scan shows how even one read word revives the brain.

The brain acts logically, says Dean: at first, letters for it are just visual information, objects. But then he correlates this visual code with the already existing knowledge of the letters. That is, a person recognizes the letters and only then understands their meaning and how they are pronounced. This is because nature did not assume that man would invent exactly this mechanism for transmitting information.

Reading is a revolutionary technique, an artificial interface that literally rebuilt our brain, in which initially there was no special department for recognizing linguistic symbols. The brain had to adapt for this the primary visual cortex, through which the signal passes along the fusiform gyrus, which is responsible for face recognition. In the same gyrus there is a repository of knowledge about languages ​​- it is also called a "mailbox".

Together with colleagues from Brazil and Portugal, Dean published a study, the conclusion of which says that the "mailbox" is active only for those who can read, and is stimulated only by letters known to a person: he will not respond to hieroglyphs if you do not know Chinese. Reading also affects the work of the visual cortex: it begins to recognize objects more accurately, trying to distinguish one letter from another. The perception of sounds is transformed: thanks to reading, the alphabet is built into this process - hearing a sound, a person imagines a letter.

Find yourself in the shoes of a hero

Mirror neurons are located in the temporal cortex and amygdala. It is thanks to them that people can repeat movements one after another in a dance, parody someone or feel joy looking at a smiling person. “From the point of view of biological expediency, this is correct. It is more effective when the flock, the community have a single emotion: we all run away from danger, fight the predator, celebrate the holidays, "explains the importance of the mechanism, Doctor of Biological Sciences Vyacheslav Dubynin.

A study by Emory University proves that a person can feel empathy not only towards a neighbor or passer-by, but also a character in a book. The reading participants in the experiment underwent a series of MRIs, which showed increased activity in the central sulcus of the brain. Neurons in this section can transform thinking into real-life sensations - for example, thinking about future competition into physical exertion. And while reading, they literally put us in the skin of our beloved hero.

“We don't know how long such neural changes can last. But the fact that the effect of even a randomly read story was found in the brain after 5 days suggests that your favorite books may affect you much longer,”says lead researcher Gregory Burns.

For work and pleasure

However, not all books are destined to generate empathy and interest in your brain. In her book Why We Read Fiction: Theory of Mind and the Novel, Professor Lisa Zanshine writes that usually the genre that suits the reader's brain becomes the favorite genre, for example, complex detective stories - lovers of logic problems. But in order to get to the feelings themselves, you often have to break through complex cognitive exercises that, for example, Virginia Woolf and Jane Austen included in their texts, Zanshein says, - like phrases “she understood that he thought she was laughing at herself, and that worried her. " Such constructions force several emotions to be experienced consistently.

Jane Austen is also remembered by the writer Maria Konnikova. In the article "What Jane Austen can teach us about how the brain pays attention" she talks about an experiment by neuroscientist Natalie Phillips, dedicated to different perception of text. The study involved English students unfamiliar with Austin's novel Mansfield Park. At first, they read the text in a relaxed way - just to have fun. Then the experimenter asked them to analyze the text, pay attention to the structure, main topics and warned them that they had to write an essay about what they had read. All this time, the students were in the MRI machine, which monitored the work of their brains. With a more relaxed reading, the centers responsible for pleasure were activated in the brain. When immersed in the text, the activity shifted to the area responsible for attention and analysis. In fact, with different goals, the students saw two different texts.

Does reading make you smarter?

It is believed that reading is good for the intellect. But is it really so? An experiment by the Society for Research on Child Development in 1,890 identical twins aged 7, 9, 10, 12, and 16 showed that early reading skills influence general future intelligence. Children who were actively taught to read at an early age turned out to be smarter than their identical twins, who did not receive such help from adults.

And researchers at New York University have found that reading short fictional stories immediately improves the ability to recognize human emotions. The participants in this study divided into groups and determined the emotions of the actors from the photographs of their eyes after reading popular literature, non-fiction or fiction novels - the result of the latter group was much more impressive.

Many are skeptical about the results of these experiments. For example, employees of the University of Pace conducted a similar experiment on guessing emotions and found that people who read more throughout their lives actually decode facial expressions better, but scientists urge not to confuse causality with correlation. They are not convinced that the results of the experiment are related to reading: it is possible that these people read more precisely because they are empathic, and not vice versa. And MIT cognitive neuroscientist Rebeca Sachs notes that the research method itself is very weak, but scientists have to use it due to the lack of better technologies.

Another sensational study, vulnerable to criticism, turned out to be an experiment by scientists at the University of Liverpool. They measured the cognitive performance of literary students and found that students who were more well-read and capable of analyzing texts had increased brain activity. This finding also substitutes causation for correlation: perhaps the most well-read participants showed such results because of innate cognitive abilities (and for the same reason, at one time they fell in love with reading).

But, despite all the discrepancies, researchers will not stop and continue to look for the benefits of reading, says Arnold Weinstein, professor of literature at Brown University: after all, this is one of the most effective ways to "save" literature in an era when its value and benefits are increasingly being questioned.

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