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.

How reading rewires your brain for higher intelligence and empathy

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.

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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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7 most notorious and excessive Roman Emperors

These Roman Emperors were infamous for their debauchery and cruelty.

Nero's Torches. A group of early Christian martyrs about to be burned alive during the reign of emperor Nero in 64 AD.

1876. Painted by Henryk Siemiradzki.
Politics & Current Affairs
  • Roman Emperors were known for their excesses and violent behavior.
  • From Caligula to Elagabalus, the emperors exercised total power in the service of their often-strange desires.
  • Most of these emperors met violent ends themselves.

We rightfully complain about many of our politicians and leaders today, but historically speaking, humanity has seen much worse. Arguably no set of rulers has been as debauched, ingenious in their cruelty, and prone to excess as the Roman Emperors.

While this list is certainly not exhaustive, here are seven Roman rulers who were perhaps the worst of the worst in what was one of the largest empires that ever existed, lasting for over a thousand years.

1. Caligula

Officially known as Gaius (Gaius Caesar Augustus Germanicus), Caligula was the third Roman Emperor, ruling from 37 to 41 AD. He acquired the nickname "Caligula" (meaning "little [soldier's] boot") from his father's soldiers during a campaign.

While recognized for some positive measures in the early days of his rule, he became famous throughout the ages as an absolutely insane emperor, who killed anyone when it pleased him, spent exorbitantly, was obsessed with perverse sex, and proclaimed himself to be a living god.

Caligula gives his horse Incitatus a drink during a banquet. Credit: An engraving by Persichini from a drawing by Pinelli, from "The History of the Roman Emperors" from Augustus to Constantine, by Jean Baptiste Louis Crevier. 1836.

Among his litany of misdeeds, according to the accounts of Caligula's contemporaries Philo of Alexandria and Seneca the Younger, he slept with whomever he wanted, brazenly taking other men's wives (even on their wedding nights) and publicly talking about it.

He also had an insatiable blood thirst, killing for mere amusement. Once, as reports historian Suetonius, when the bridge across the sea at Puteoli was being blessed, he had a number of spectators who were there to inspect it thrown off into the water. When some tried to cling to the ships' rudders, Caligula had them dislodged with hooks and oars so they would drown. On another occasion, he got so bored that he had his guards throw a whole section of the audience into the arena during the intermission so they would be eaten by wild beasts. He also allegedly executed two consuls who forgot his birthday.

Suetonius relayed further atrocities of the mad emperor's character, writing that Caligula "frequently had trials by torture held in his presence while he was eating or otherwise enjoying himself; and kept an expert headsman in readiness to decapitate the prisoners brought in from gaol." One particular form of torture associated with Caligula involved having people sawed in half.

He caused mass starvation and purposefully wasted money and resources, like making his troops stage fake battles just for theater. If that wasn't enough, he turned his palace into a brothel and was accused of incest with his sisters, Agrippina the Younger, Drusilla, and Livilla, whom he also prostituted to other men. Perhaps most famously, he was planning to appoint his favorite horse Incitatus a consul and went as far as making the horse into a priest.

In early 41 AD, Caligula was assassinated by a conspiracy of Praetorian Guard officers, senators, and other members of the court.

2. Nero

Fully named Nero Claudius Caesar, Nero ruled from 54 to 68 AD and was arguably an even worse madman than his uncle Caligula. He had his step-brother Britannicus killed, his wife Octavia executed, and his mother Agrippina stabbed and murdered. He personally kicked to death his lover Poppeaea while she was pregnant with his child — a horrific action the Roman historian Tacitus depicted as "a casual outburst of rage."

He spent exorbitantly and built a 100-foot-tall bronze statue of himself called the Colossus Neronis.

He is also remembered for being strangely obsessed with music. He sang and played the lyre, although it's not likely he really fiddled as Rome burned in what is a popular myth about this crazed tyrant. As misplaced retribution for the fire which burned down a sizable portion of Rome in the year 64, he executed scores of early Christians, some of them outfitted in animal skins and brutalized by dogs, with others burned at the stake.

He died by suicide.

Roman Emperor Nero in the burning ruins of Rome. July 64 AD.Credit: From an original painting by S.J. Ferris. (Photo by Kean Collection / Getty Images)

3. Commodus

Like some of his counterparts, Commodus (a.k.a. Lucius Aelius Aurelius Commodus) thought he was a god — in his case, a reincarnation of the Greek demigod Hercules. Ruling from 176 to 192 AD, he was also known for his debauched ways and strange stunts that seemed designed to affirm his divine status. Numerous statues around the empire showed him as Hercules, a warrior who fought both men and beasts. He fought hundreds of exotic animals in an arena like a gladiator, confusing and terrifying his subjects. Once, he killed 100 lions in a single day.

Emperor Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix) questions the loyalty of his sister Lucilla (Connie Nielsen) In Dreamworks Pictures' and Universal Pictures' Oscar-winning drama "Gladiator," directed by Ridley Scott.Credit: Photo By Getty Images

The burning desire to kill living creatures as a gladiator for the New Year's Day celebrations in 193 AD brought about his demise. After Commodus shot hundreds of animals with arrows and javelins every morning as part of the Plebeian Games leading up to New Year's, his fitness coach (aptly named Narcissus), choked the emperor to death in his bath.

4. Elagabalus

Officially named Marcus Aurelius Antoninus II, Elagabalus's nickname comes from his priesthood in the cult of the Syrian god Elagabal. Ruling as emperor from 218 to 222 AD, he was so devoted to the cult, which he tried to spread in Rome, that he had himself circumcised to prove his dedication. He further offended the religious sensitivities of his compatriots by essentially replacing the main Roman god Jupiter with Elagabal as the chief deity. In another nod to his convictions, he installed on Palatine Hill a cone-like fetish made of black stone as a symbol of the Syrian sun god Sol Invictus Elagabalus.

His sexual proclivities were also not well received at the time. He was likely transgender (wearing makeup and wigs), had five marriages, and was quite open about his male lovers. According to the Roman historian (and the emperor's contemporary) Cassius Dio, Elagabalus prostituted himself in brothels and taverns and was one of the first historical figures on record to be looking for sex reassignment surgery.

He was eventually murdered in 222 in an assassination plot engineered by his own grandmother Julia Maesa.

5. Vitellius

Emperor for just eight months, from April 19th to December 20th of the year 69 AD, Vitellius made some key administrative contributions to the empire but is ultimately remembered as a cruel glutton. He was described by Suetonius as overly fond of eating and drinking, to the point where he would eat at banquets four times a day while sending out the Roman navy to get him rare foods. He also had little social grace, inviting himself over to the houses of different noblemen to eat at their banquets, too.

Vitellius dragged through the streets of Rome.Credit: Georges Rochegrosse. 1883.

He was also quite vicious and reportedly either had his own mother starved to death or approved a poison with which she committed suicide.

Vitellius was ultimately murdered in brutal fashion by supporters of the rival emperor Vespasian, who dragged him through Rome's streets, then likely beheaded him and threw his body into the Tiber river. "Yet I was once your emperor," were supposedly his last words, wrote historian Cassius Dio.

6. Caracalla

Marcus Aurelius Antoninus I ruled Rome from 211 to 217 AD on his own (while previously co-ruling with his father Septimius Severus from 198). "Caracalla"' was his nickname, referencing a hooded coat from Gaul that he brought into Roman fashion.

He started off his rise to individual power by murdering his younger brother Geta, who was named co-heir by their father. Caracalla's bloodthirsty tyranny didn't stop there. He wiped out Geta's supporters and was known to execute any opponents to his or Roman rule. For instance, he slaughtered up to 20,000 citizens of Alexandria after a local theatrical satire dared to mock him.

Geta Dying in His Mother's Arms.Credit: Jacques Pajou (1766-1828)

One of the positive outcomes of his rule was the Edict of Caracalla, which gave Roman citizenship to all free men in the empire. He was also known for building gigantic baths.

Like others on this list, Caracalla met a brutal end, being assassinated by army officers, including the Praetorian prefect Opellius Macrinus, who installed himself as the next emperor.

7. Tiberius

As the second emperor, Tiberius (ruling from 42 BC to 16 AD) is known for a number of accomplishments, especially his military exploits. He was one of the Roman Empire's most successful generals, conquering Pannonia, Dalmatia, Raetia, and parts of Germania.

He was also remembered by his contemporaries as a rather sullen, perverse, and angry man. In the chapter on his life from The Lives of the Twelve Caesars by the historian Suetonius, Tiberius is said to have been disliked from an early age for his personality by even his family. Suetonius wrote that his mother Antonia often called him "an abortion of a man, that had been only begun, but never finished, by nature."

"Orgy of the Times of Tiberius on Capri".Painting by Henryk Siemiradzki. 1881.

Suetonius also paints a damning picture of Tiberius after he retreated from public life to the island of Capri. His years on the island would put Jeffrey Epstein to shame. A horrendous pedophile, Tiberius had a reputation for "depravities that one can hardly bear to tell or be told, let alone believe," Suetonius wrote, describing how "in Capri's woods and groves he arranged a number of nooks of venery where boys and girls got up as Pans and nymphs solicited outside bowers and grottoes: people openly called this 'the old goat's garden,' punning on the island's name."

There's much, much more — far too salacious and, frankly, disgusting to repeat here. For the intrepid or morbidly curious reader, here's a link for more information.

After he died, Tiberius was fittingly succeeded in emperorship by his grandnephew and adopted grandson Caligula.

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