January 9, 2012

The act of reading has powerful positive effects for your brain

Image: Istvan Tomás


If you’re surfing this website, you’re supporting your recovery in more ways than one

By Dylan Barmmer
If you want to build your biceps, you go to the gym and lift weights. If you want to build and maintain sobriety, you go to recovery meetings and counseling sessions. But if you want to keep your brain firing at a crisp, efficient pace, you should grab a book, magazine, hand-held device or tablet computer and have a good read.
You might say that’s a no-brainer and return to your regularly scheduled reading. Or you might say, “No thanks. I’m not the academic type,” and turn your attention back to your Xbox. If you’re in the latter group, you might want to reconsider: More and more research shows that the very act of reading—whether it’s a weighty classic such as War and Peace or something easily digestible such as this article—has powerful effects on your brain, both now and into the future.
“From a lifestyle balance perspective, reading is an essential activity for most people,” says Tom Horvath, a clinical psychologist and president of Practical Recovery, a self-empowering addiction treatment system in San Diego, Calif. “It is the most efficient way to learn a great deal of things. There’s value to reading anything because of what reading does for your brain.”
This Is Your Brain on Words
What does reading do for your brain? Put simply, a lot. Because it calls into play several different areas of the brain, reading is more neurobiologically demanding than processing images or speech. Watching a movie or listening to books on tape will work out and expand your brain but not at the same level that reading can. Even as you’re reading this article, for example, parts of your brain that have evolved over time for other functions, such as vision and language, are connecting in a specific neural pathway for reading. Look at an MRI scan of the brain during reading, and you’ll see an abundance of activity.
Still paying attention? The act of reading demands the use of not only your intelligence but also your concentration and frequently brings into play your imagination, particularly if you’re reading a work of fiction.
From keeping your memory sharp and enhancing your learning capacity to setting the stage for new activities and passions (i.e. thoughts become words become actions), reading is the ultimate brain exercise.
Although reading is a true workout for the complex engine that is your brain, there’s also a very calming and soothing aspect that often comes with digging into a good book or article. That seems to be the case for everyone but can be even more dramatic and beneficial for someone who has battled the demons of addiction, which is becoming increasingly understood as a brain disease.
Horvath notes that many people who find themselves in recovery are dealing with some underlying condition such as attention deficit disorder or anxiety disorder, and a centered, focused activity such as reading can have a powerful effect.
Here, There, Everywhere
One dilemma for readers today is not having enough time or energy to really dig in. The opportunities to read, and the mediums to do it with, have never been greater. Booksellers abound, from massive chains to the funky neighborhood bookstore/coffee shop hybrid.
Newspapers and magazines have shrunk in size, but there seems to be more available than ever before. And of course, there’s the internet, accessible nearly everywhere now thanks to powerful WiFi networks. If you’re not surfing the web with your laptop or mobile device, you might be digging into a good article, or even book, on one of the increasingly popular e-readers and tablets. The universe of reading has never been more accessible—or interesting.
A Social Affair
Reading is, in its essence, a solitary endeavor. But few passions exist like that of a voracious reader for her favorite author. And few things can unite a group of people like a good story.
Just like social bonds are formed and reconfirmed in recovery meetings, things such as book discussion clubs and live readings can help people feel active, alive and connected to something much bigger than themselves—key tenets in any method of recovery.
“Reading is a kind of dialogue with an author, but because you can’t actually ask the author questions, it’s often helpful to read a book or article when others are also reading it and discuss it together,” Horvath says. “Discussion is likely to help bring out meanings that may have missed the solitary reader.
“These kinds of dialogues with an author in imagination or with a group expand one’s awareness and thereby bring into awareness resources and perspectives that may be useful for recovery,” Horvath adds.
So what are you waiting for? Pick up a good book—or or tablet or whatever medium that comes out next—and start enjoying all the benefits of reading today. 
Dylan Barmmer is the founder of the creative copywriting consortium Word Is Born and a regular contributor to RenewEveryDay.com.

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