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How reading rewires your brain for higher intelligence and empathy
Get lost in a good book. Time and again, reading has been shown to make us healthier, smarter, and more empathic.
Fitness headlines promise staggering physical results: a firmer butt, ripped abs, bulging biceps. Nutritional breakthroughs are similar clickbait, with attention-grabbing, if often inauthentic—what, really, is a “superfood?"—means of achieving better health. Strangely, one topic usually escaping discussion has been shown, time and again, to make us healthier, smarter, and more empathic animals: reading.
Reading, of course, requires patience, diligence, and determination. Scanning headlines and retweeting quips is not going to make much cognitive difference. If anything, such sweet nothings are dangerous, the literary equivalent of sugar addiction. Information gathering in under 140 characters is lazy. The benefits of contemplation through narrative offer another story.
The benefits are plenty, which is especially important in a distracted, smartphone age in which one-quarter of American children don't learn to read. This not only endangers them socially and intellectually, but cognitively handicaps them for life. One 2009 study of 72 children ages eight to ten discovered that reading creates new white matter in the brain, which improves system-wide communication.
White matter carries information between regions of grey matter, where any information is processed. Not only does reading increase white matter, it helps information be processed more efficiently.
Reading in one language has enormous benefits. Add a foreign language and not only do communication skills improve—you can talk to more people in wider circles—but the regions of your brain involved in spatial navigation and learning new information increase in size. Learning a new language also improves your overall memory.
In one of the most fascinating aspects of neuroscience, language affects regions of your brain involving actions you're reading about. For example, when you read “soap" and “lavender," the parts of your brain implicated in scent are activated. Those regions remain silent when you read “chair." What if I wrote “leather chair?" Your sensory cortex just fired.
Continuing from the opening paragraph, let's discuss squats in your quest for a firmer butt. Picture the biomechanics required for a squat. Your motor cortex has been activated. Athletes have long envisioned their movements—Serena Williams's serve; Conor McGregor's kicks; Usain Bolt's bursts of speed—to achieve better proficiency while actually moving. That's because their brains are practicing. That is, they're practicing through visualization techniques.
Hard glutes are one thing. Novel reading is a great way to practice being human. Rather than sprints and punches, how about something more primitive and necessary in a society, like empathy? As you dive deeper into Rabbit Angstrom's follies or Jason Taylor coming of age, you not only feel their pain and joy. You actually experience it.
In one respect novels go beyond simulating reality to give readers an experience unavailable off the page: the opportunity to enter fully into other people's thoughts and feelings.
This has profound implications for how we interact with others. When encountering a 13-year-old boy misbehaving, you most likely won't think, “Well, David Mitchell wrote about such a situation, and so I should behave like this," but you might have integrated some of the lessons about young boys figuring life out and display a more nuanced understanding in how you react.
Perhaps you'll even reconsider trolling someone online regarding their political opinion, remembering that no matter how crass and inhumane a sentiment appears on screen, an actual human is sitting behind the keyboard pecking out their thoughts. I'm not arguing against engaging, but for the love of anything closely resembling humanity, argue intelligently.
Because reading does in fact make us more intelligent. Research shows that reading not only helps with fluid intelligence, but with reading comprehension and emotional intelligence as well. You make smarter decisions about yourself and those around you.
All of these benefits require actually reading, which leads to the formation of a philosophy rather than the regurgitation of an agenda, so prevalent in reposts and online trolling. Recognizing the intentions of another human also plays a role in constructing an ideology. Novels are especially well-suited for this task. A 2011 study published in the Annual Review of Psychology found overlap in brain regions used to comprehend stories and networks dedicated to interactions with others.
Novels consume time and attention. While the benefits are worthwhile, even shorter bursts of prose exhibit profound neurological effects. Poetry elicits strong emotional responses in readers and, as one study shows, listeners. Heart rates, facial expressions, and “movement of their skin and arm hairs" were measured while participants listened to poetry. Forty percent ended up displaying visible goose bumps, as they would while listening to music or watching movies. As for their craniums:
Their neurological responses, however, seemed to be unique to poetry: Scans taken during the study showed that listening to the poems activated parts of participants' brains that, as other studies have shown, are not activated when listening to music or watching films.
These responses mostly occurred near the conclusion of a stanza and especially near the end of the poem. This fits in well with our inherent need for narrative: in the absence of a conclusion our brain automatically creates one, which, of course, leads to plenty of heartbreak and suffering when our speculations prove to be false. Instead we should turn to more poetry:
There is something fundamental to the poetic form that implies, creates, and instills pleasure.
Whether an Amiri Baraka verse or a Margaret Atwood trilogy, attention matters. Research at Stanford showed a neurological difference between reading for pleasure and focused reading, as if for a test. Blood flows to different neural areas depending on how reading is conducted. The researchers hope this might offer clues for advancing cognitive training methods.
I have vivid memories of my relationship with reading: trying to write my first book (Scary Monster Stories) at age five; creating a mock newspaper after the Bernard Goetz subway shooting when I was nine, my mother scolding me for “thinking about such things"; sitting in the basement of my home in the Jersey suburbs one weekend morning, determined to read the entirety of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, which I did.
Reading is like any skill. You have to practice it, regularly and constantly. While I never finished (or really much started) Scary Monster Stories, I have written nine books and read thousands more along the way. Though it's hard to tell if reading has made me smarter or a better person, I like to imagine that it has.
What I do know is that life would seem a bit less meaningful if we didn't share stories with one another. While many mediums for transmitting narratives across space and time exist, I've found none as pleasurable as cracking open a new book and getting lost in a story. Something profound is always discovered along the way.
Derek is the author of Whole Motion: Training Your Brain and Body For Optimal Health. Based in Los Angeles he is working on a new book about spiritual consumerism. Stay in touch on Facebook and Twitter.
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Scientists find routes using arches of chaos that can lead to much faster space travel.
- Researchers discovered a route through the Solar System that can allow for much faster spacecraft travel.
- The path takes advantage of "arches of chaos" within space manifolds.
- The scientists think this "celestial superhighway" can help humans get to the far reaches of the galaxy.
Humanity could be making its way through the Solar System much faster thanks to the discovery of a new superhighway network among space manifolds. Don't get your engines roaring along this "celestial autobahn" just yet, but the researchers believe the new pathways can eventually be used by spacecraft to get to the outer reaches of our Solar System with relative haste.
The celestial highway could get comets and asteroids from Jupiter to Neptune in less than a decade. Compare that to hundreds of thousands or even millions of years it might ordinarily take for space objects to traverse the Solar System. In a century of travel along the new routes, a 100 astronomical units could be covered, project the scientists. For reference, an astronomical unit is the average distance from the Earth to the Sun or about 93 million miles.
The international research team included Nataša Todorović, Di Wu, and Aaron Rosengren from the Belgrade Astronomical Observatory in Serbia, the University of Arizona, and UC San Diego. Their new paper proposes a dynamic route, going along connected series of arches within so-called space manifolds. These structures, coming into existence from gravitational effects between the Sun and the planets, stretch from the asteroid belt to past Uranus.
The most pronounced of these structures are linked to Jupiter by its strong gravitational pull, explained UC San Diego's press release. They influence the comets around the gas giant as well as smaller space objects called "centaurs," with are like asteroids in size but exhibit the composition of comets.
This animation shows space manifolds over a hundred years. Each frame of the animation shows how the arches and substructures appear over three-year increments.
Credit: Nataša Todorović, Di Wu and Aaron Rosengren/Science Advances
"Space manifolds act as the boundaries of dynamical channels enabling fast transportation into the inner- and outermost reaches of the Solar System," write the researchers. "Besides being an important element in spacecraft navigation and mission design, these manifolds can also explain the apparent erratic nature of comets and their eventual demise."
A closer image of the manifolds showing colliding and escaping objects.
Credit: Science Advances
The researchers discovered the structures by analyzing collected numerical data on the millions of orbits in the Solar System. The scientists figured out how these orbits were contained within known space manifolds. To detect the presences and structure of the space manifolds, the team employed the fast Lyapunov indicator (FLI), used to detect chaos. The scientists ran simulations to compute how the trajectories of particles approaching different planets like Jupiter, Uranus and Neptune would be affected by possible collisions and the manifolds.
While the results are encouraging, the next step is to figure out how these arches can be used by spacecraft for much speedier travel. It's also not clear how similar manifolds work near Earth. Also unclear is how they impact our planet's run-ins with asteroids and meteorites or any of the man-made objects floating up in space near us.
Check out the new paper "The arches of chaos in the Solar System" in Science Advances.
A new episode of "Your Brain on Money" illuminates the strange world of consumer behavior and explores how brands can wreak havoc on our ability to make rational decisions.
- Effective branding can not only change how you feel about a company, it can actually change how your brain is wired.
- Our new series "Your Brain on Money," created in partnership with Million Stories, recently explored the surprising ways brands can affect our behavior.
- Brands aren't going away. But you can make smarter decisions by slowing down and asking yourself why you're making a particular purchase.
How Apple and Nike have branded your brain | Your Brain on Money | Big Think youtu.be
Brands can manipulate our brains in surprisingly profound ways. They can change how we conceptualize ourselves and how we broadcast our identities out to the social world. They can make us feel emotions that have nothing to do with the functions of their products. And they can even sort us into tribes.
To grasp the power of brands, look to Apple. In the 1990s, the company was struggling to compete with Microsoft over the personal computer market. Despite flirting with bankruptcy in the mid-1990s, Apple turned itself around to eventually become the most valuable company in the world.
That early-stage success wasn't due to superior products.
"People talk about technology, but Apple was a marketing company," John Sculley, a former Apple marketing executive, told The Guardian in 1997. "It was the marketing company of the decade."
So, how exactly does branding make people willing to wait hours in line to buy a $1,000 smartphone, or pay exorbitant prices for a pair of sneakers?
Branding and the brain
For more than a century, brands have capitalized on the fact that effective marketing is much more than simply touting the merits of a product. Some ads have nothing to do with the product at all. In 1871, for example, Pearl Tobacco started advertising their cigarettes through branded posters and trading cards that featured exposed women, a trend that continues to this day.
It's crude, sure. But research shows that it's also remarkably effective, even on monkeys. Why? The answer seems to center on how our brains pay special attention to information from the social world.
"In theory, ads that associate sex or status with specific brands or products activate the brain mechanisms that prioritize social information, and turning on this switch may bias us toward the product," wrote neuroscience professor Michael Platt for Scientific American.
Brands can burrow themselves deep into our subconscious. Through ad campaigns, brands can form a web of associations and memories in our brains. When these connections are robust and positive, it can change our behavior, nudging us to make "no-brainer" purchases when we encounter the brand at the store.
It's a marketing principle that's related to the work of Daniel Kahneman, a psychologist and economist who won the 2002 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences. In his book "Thinking Fast and Slow", Kahneman separates thinking into two broad categories, or systems:
- System 1 is fast and automatic, requiring little effort or voluntary control.
- System 2 is slow and requires subjective deliberation and logic.
Brands that tap into "system 1" are likely to dominate the competition. After all, it's far easier for us as consumers to automatically reach for a familiar brand than it is to analyze all of the available information and make an informed choice. Still, the most successful brands can have an even deeper impact on our psychology, one that causes us to conceptualize them as something like a family member.
A peculiar relationship with brands
Apple has one of the most loyal customer bases in the world, with its brand loyalty hitting an all-time high earlier this year, according to a SellCell survey of more than 5,000 U.S.-based smartphone users.
Qualitatively, how does that loyalty compare to Samsung users? To find out, Platt and his team conducted a study in which functional magnetic resonance imaging scanned the brains of Samsung and Apple users as they viewed positive, negative, and neutral news about each company. The results revealed stark differences between the two groups, as Platt wrote in "The Leader's Brain":
"Apple users showed empathy for their own brand: The reward-related areas of the brain were activated by good news about Apple, and the pain and negative feeling parts of the brain were activated by bad news. They were neutral about any kind of Samsung news. This is exactly what we see when people empathize with other people—particularly their family and friends—but don't feel the joy and pain of people they don't know."
Meanwhile, Samsung users didn't show any significant pain- or pleasure-related brain activity when they saw good or bad news about the company.
"Interestingly, though, the pain areas were activated by good news about Apple, and the reward areas were activated by bad news about the rival company—some serious schadenfreude, or "reverse empathy," Platt wrote.
The results suggest a fundamental difference between the brands: Apple has formed strong emotional and social connections with consumers, Samsung has not.
Brands and the self
Does having a strong connection with a brand justify paying higher prices for their products? Maybe. You could have a strong connection with Apple or Nike and simultaneously think the quality of their products justifies the price.
But beyond product quality lies identity. People have long used objects and clothing to express themselves and signal their affiliation with groups. From prehistoric seashell jewelry to Air Jordans, the things people wear and associate with signal a lot of information about how they conceptualize themselves.
Since the 1950s, researchers have examined the relationship between self-image and brand preferences. This body of research has generally found that consumers tend to prefer brands whose products fit well with their self-image, a concept known as self-image congruity.
By choosing brands that don't disrupt their self-image, consumers are able not only to express themselves personally, but also broadcast a specific version of themselves into the social world. That might sound self-involved. But on the other hand, humans are social creatures who use information from the social world to make decisions, so it's virtually impossible for us not to make inferences about people based on how they present themselves.
Americus Reed II, a marketing professor at the University of Pennsylvania, told Big Think:
"When I make choices about different brands, I'm choosing to create an identity. When I put that shirt on, when I put that shirt on — those jeans, that hat — someone is going to form an impression about what I'm about. So, if I'm choosing Nike over Under Armour, I'm choosing a kind of different way to express affiliation with sport. The Nike thing is about performance. The Under Armour thing is about the underdog. I have to choose which of these different conceptual pathways is most consistent with where I am in my life."
Making smarter decisions
Brands may have some power over us when we're facing a purchasing decision. So, considering brands aren't going away, what can we do to make better choices? The best strategy might be to slow down and try to avoid making "automatic" purchasing decisions that are characteristic of Kahneman's fast "system 1" mode of thinking.
"I think it's important to always pause and think a little bit about, "Okay, why am I buying this product?" Platt said.
As for getting out of the brand game altogether? Good luck.
"I've heard lots of people push back and say, "I'm not into brands,"" Reed II said. "I take a very different view. In some senses, they're not doing anything different than what someone who affiliates with a brand is doing. They have a brand. It's just an anti-brand brand."
Powerful branding can not only change how you feel about a company, it can actually change how your brain is wired.
- Powerful branding can not only change how you feel about a company, it can actually change how your brain is wired.
- "We love to think of ourselves as rational. That's not how it works," says UPenn professor Americus Reed II about our habits (both conscious and subconscious) of paying more for items based primarily on the brand name. Effective marketing causes the consumer to link brands like Apple and Nike with their own identity, and that strong attachment goes deeper than receipts.
- Using MRI, professor and neuroscientist Michael Platt and his team were able to see this at play. When reacting to good or bad news about the brand, Samsung users didn't have positive or negative brain responses, yet they did have "reverse empathy" for bad news about Apple. Meanwhile, Apple users showed a "brain empathy response for Apple that was exactly what you'd see in the way you would respond to somebody in your family."