How to Better Your Brain While Reclining in Your Favorite Chair
March 21st, 2016 by NHI
What if boosting your brain was as simple as kicking up your feet and enjoying a soothing activity that you’ve been doing since kindergarten — but may now consider a “guilty pleasure?”
New neuroscience reveals this one leisure activity can boost long-term cognition, improve memory, and reduce cognitive decline.
And you can do it from your favorite chair, morning, noon or night.
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If you like to read, you know how it feels to get lost in a good story…
The outside world drops away as your imagination fires up.
You can practically feel your feet in the character’s shoes … and you experience the same unbridled joy or gut-wrenching pain as you walk their path with them.
I realize a great many people seldom read a book. If you’re one of them, all I can say is, “You don’t know what you’re missing.” And that goes double, because this activity also helps ward off cognitive decline.
Here’s What Scientists have Found
Scientists at Emory University in Atlanta, GA have been digging deep into the neuroscience of reading, and how your brain functions when you’re enveloped in a page-turning thriller or romance novel.
Their research reveals that reading narrative stories exercises your brain in a unique combination of areas, with significantly increased neural connectivity in just nine days.
To clarify, “narrative” means a story told in either first, second or third person that involves a protagonist, or main character.
It can be any genre of novel, short stories or creative nonfiction, but the category does not include reports or essays.
Stories Stimulate the Brain in Unique Ways
Using functional MRI, the Emory researchers first established the participants’ normal, resting brain activity for five days.
For the next nine days, participants read 1/9th (approximately 34 pages) of Robert Harris’s 2003 novel Pompeii, which was chosen for its strong narrative and compelling plot.
The researchers measured the resting-state brain activity right after reading and the morning after reading.
Immediately after, the participants showed “shadow activity,” the brain’s version of muscle memory — as though it was still processing or recovering from the “workout.”
But even more significant were the morning-after results.
The researchers discovered significant increases in connectivity in the left angular, supramarginal, and right posterior gyri each morning after they read.
The gyri are part of the folds and ridges that make up the surface of the brain. These gyri just mentioned are associated with language processing, spatial cognition, memory retrieval and empathy.1
The supramarginal gyri is also part of the mirror neuron system, which allows us to imitate social behaviors and “read” other people’s emotions. It’s also what causes us to smile when others smile, or yawn when we see another person yawn.
Mirror neurons are so important to our functioning as human beings they’ve been called “the neurons that shaped our civilization.” 2
And it appears you can strengthen them—and your memory—just by losing yourself in an engaging story.
It’s interesting to note that the highest connectivity was measured at the end of the novel, during the climax (the volcano erupting) and final scenes (Pompeii being destroyed). It’s unclear whether the neural network growth was time dependent —in other words, if the effect was cumulative, considering the subjects had been reading for nine days in a row — or if it was dependent on how exciting the book was.
However, the researchers did note that certain positive effects “washed out” after just a few days of not reading.
That’s not all they discovered.
Your Brain Feels Like It’s Really Happening
The Emory lab also observed long-term heightened connectivity in the somatosensory cortex (the outermost layer of the brain, in the same place you’d wear a headband.) This region is responsible for processing sensory information, navigation and spatial sense.
This indicates—amazingly—that even though the participants were simply reading … their brains were stimulated as though they were physically encountering the experience in the story.
A study from the journal Psychological Science also reported that your brain takes information from previous real-life situations similar to those being described in the story and activates the same neurons associated with those feelings or actions.3
For example, when a protagonist pulls the cord to an attic door, the neurons associated with controlling grasping motions are activated.
When a character moves through a doorway, your spatial sense neurons get to work. If the character is running, the area of your brain associated with running actually lights up.
To your brain, reading about someone doing something and doing it yourself are, on a biological level, much the same thing. This phenomenon helps you “exercise” specific parts of your brain, form new neural connections, and fight cognitive decline.
So, if curling up with your favorite book on a rainy afternoon has become a guilty pleasure — give yourself permission to enjoy! It’s now an important part of your brain-boosting regimen. If you haven’t been in the habit, consider starting.
Now, where’s my Go Away, I’m Reading mug? I’ve got to find out what happens in the end of this book…