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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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Northwell Health is using insights from website traffic to forecast COVID-19 hospitalizations two weeks in the future.
- The machine-learning algorithm works by analyzing the online behavior of visitors to the Northwell Health website and comparing that data to future COVID-19 hospitalizations.
- The tool, which uses anonymized data, has so far predicted hospitalizations with an accuracy rate of 80 percent.
- Machine-learning tools are helping health-care professionals worldwide better constrain and treat COVID-19.
The value of forecasting<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNTA0Njk2OC9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYyMzM2NDQzOH0.rid9regiDaKczCCKBsu7wrHkNQ64Vz_XcOEZIzAhzgM/img.jpg?width=980" id="2bb93" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="31345afbdf2bd408fd3e9f31520c445a" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" data-width="1546" data-height="1056" />
Northwell emergency departments use the dashboard to monitor in real time.
Credit: Northwell Health<p>One unique benefit of forecasting COVID-19 hospitalizations is that it allows health systems to better prepare, manage and allocate resources. For example, if the tool forecasted a surge in COVID-19 hospitalizations in two weeks, Northwell Health could begin:</p><ul><li>Making space for an influx of patients</li><li>Moving personal protective equipment to where it's most needed</li><li>Strategically allocating staff during the predicted surge</li><li>Increasing the number of tests offered to asymptomatic patients</li></ul><p>The health-care field is increasingly using machine learning. It's already helping doctors develop <a href="https://care.diabetesjournals.org/content/early/2020/06/09/dc19-1870" target="_blank">personalized care plans for diabetes patients</a>, improving cancer screening techniques, and enabling mental health professionals to better predict which patients are at <a href="https://healthitanalytics.com/news/ehr-data-fuels-accurate-predictive-analytics-for-suicide-risk" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">elevated risk of suicide</a>, to name a few applications.</p><p>Health systems around the world have already begun exploring how <a href="https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7315944/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">machine learning can help battle the pandemic</a>, including better COVID-19 screening, diagnosis, contact tracing, and drug and vaccine development.</p><p>Cruzen said these kinds of tools represent a shift in how health systems can tackle a wide variety of problems.</p><p>"Health care has always used the past to predict the future, but not in this mathematical way," Cruzen said. "I think [Northwell Health's new predictive tool] really is a great first example of how we should be attacking a lot of things as we go forward."</p>
Making machine-learning tools openly accessible<p>Northwell Health has made its predictive tool <a href="https://github.com/northwell-health/covid-web-data-predictor" target="_blank">available for free</a> to any health system that wishes to utilize it.</p><p>"COVID is everybody's problem, and I think developing tools that can be used to help others is sort of why people go into health care," Dr. Cruzen said. "It was really consistent with our mission."</p><p>Open collaboration is something the world's governments and health systems should be striving for during the pandemic, said Michael Dowling, Northwell Health's president and CEO.</p><p>"Whenever you develop anything and somebody else gets it, they improve it and they continue to make it better," Dowling said. "As a country, we lack data. I believe very, very strongly that we should have been and should be now working with other countries, including China, including the European Union, including England and others to figure out how to develop a health surveillance system so you can anticipate way in advance when these things are going to occur."</p><p>In all, Northwell Health has treated more than 112,000 COVID patients. During the pandemic, Dowling said he's seen an outpouring of goodwill, collaboration, and sacrifice from the community and the tens of thousands of staff who work across Northwell.</p><p>"COVID has changed our perspective on everything—and not just those of us in health care, because it has disrupted everybody's life," Dowling said. "It has demonstrated the value of community, how we help one another."</p>
Scientists used CT scanning and 3D-printing technology to re-create the voice of Nesyamun, an ancient Egyptian priest.
- Scientists printed a 3D replica of the vocal tract of Nesyamun, an Egyptian priest whose mummified corpse has been on display in the UK for two centuries.
- With the help of an electronic device, the reproduced voice is able to "speak" a vowel noise.
- The team behind the "Voices of the Past" project suggest reproducing ancient voices could make museum experiences more dynamic.
Howard et al.<p style="margin-left: 20px;">"While this approach has wide implications for heritage management/museum display, its relevance conforms exactly to the ancient Egyptians' fundamental belief that 'to speak the name of the dead is to make them live again'," they wrote in a <a href="https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-019-56316-y#Fig3" target="_blank">paper</a> published in Nature Scientific Reports. "Given Nesyamun's stated desire to have his voice heard in the afterlife in order to live forever, the fulfilment of his beliefs through the synthesis of his vocal function allows us to make direct contact with ancient Egypt by listening to a sound from a vocal tract that has not been heard for over 3000 years, preserved through mummification and now restored through this new technique."</p>
Connecting modern people with history<p>It's not the first time scientists have "re-created" an ancient human's voice. In 2016, for example, Italian researchers used software to <a href="https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/hear-recreated-voice-otzi-iceman-180960570/" target="_blank">reconstruct the voice of Ötzi,</a> an iceman who was discovered in 1991 and is thought to have died more than 5,000 years ago. But the "Voices of the Past" project is different, the researchers note, because Nesyamun's mummified corpse is especially well preserved.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"It was particularly suited, given its age and preservation [of its soft tissues], which is unusual," Howard told <em><a href="https://www.livescience.com/amp/ancient-egypt-mummy-voice-reconstructed.html" target="_blank">Live Science</a>.</em></p><p>As to whether Nesyamun's reconstructed voice will ever be able to speak complete sentences, Howard told <em><a href="https://abcnews.go.com/Weird/wireStory/ancient-voice-scientists-recreate-sound-egyptian-mummy-68482015" target="_blank">The Associated Press</a>, </em>that it's "something that is being worked on, so it will be possible one day."</p><p>John Schofield, an archaeologist at the University of York, said that reproducing voices from history can make museum experiences "more multidimensional."</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"There is nothing more personal than someone's voice," he told <em>The Associated Press.</em> "So we think that hearing a voice from so long ago will be an unforgettable experience, making heritage places like Karnak, Nesyamun's temple, come alive."</p>
A new study proposes mysterious axions may be found in X-rays coming from a cluster of neutron stars.
Are Axions Dark Matter?<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="5e35ce24a5b17102bfce5ae6aecc7c14"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/e7yXqF32Yvw?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
New research suggests you can't fake your emotional state to improve your work life — you have to feel it.
What is deep acting?<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNTQ1NDk2OS9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYxNTY5MzA0Nn0._s7aP25Es1CInq51pbzGrUj3GtOIRWBHZxCBFnbyXY8/img.jpg?width=1245&coordinates=333%2C-1%2C333%2C-1&height=700" id="ddf09" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="9dc42c4d6a8e372ad7b72907b46ecd3f" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" data-width="1245" data-height="700" />
Arlie Russell Hochschild (pictured) laid out the concept of emotional labor in her 1983 book, "The Managed Heart."
Credit: Wikimedia Commons<p>Deep and surface acting are the principal components of emotional labor, a buzz phrase you have likely seen flitting about the Twittersphere. Today, "<a href="https://www.bbc.co.uk/bbcthree/article/5ea9f140-f722-4214-bb57-8b84f9418a7e" target="_blank">emotional labor</a>" has been adopted by groups as diverse as family counselors, academic feminists, and corporate CEOs, and each has redefined it with a patented spin. But while the phrase has splintered into a smorgasbord of pop-psychological arguments, its initial usage was more specific.</p><p>First coined by sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild in her 1983 book, "<a href="https://www.ucpress.edu/book/9780520272941/the-managed-heart" target="_blank">The Managed Heart</a>," emotional labor describes the work we do to regulate our emotions on the job. Hochschild's go-to example is the flight attendant, who is tasked with being "nicer than natural" to enhance the customer experience. While at work, flight attendants are expected to smile and be exceedingly helpful even if they are wrestling with personal issues, the passengers are rude, and that one kid just upchucked down the center aisle. Hochschild's counterpart to the flight attendant is the bill collector, who must instead be "nastier than natural."</p><p>Such personas may serve an organization's mission or commercial interests, but if they cause emotional dissonance, they can potentially lead to high emotional costs for the employee—bringing us back to deep and surface acting.</p><p>Deep acting is the process by which people modify their emotions to match their expected role. Deep actors still encounter the negative emotions, but they devise ways to <a href="http://www.selfinjury.bctr.cornell.edu/perch/resources/what-is-emotion-regulationsinfo-brief.pdf" target="_blank">regulate those emotions</a> and return to the desired state. Flight attendants may modify their internal state by talking through harsh emotions (say, with a coworker), focusing on life's benefits (next stop Paris!), physically expressing their desired emotion (smiling and deep breaths), or recontextualizing an inauspicious situation (not the kid's fault he got sick).</p><p>Conversely, surface acting occurs when employees display ersatz emotions to match those expected by their role. These actors are the waiters who smile despite being crushed by the stress of a dinner rush. They are the CEOs who wear a confident swagger despite feelings of inauthenticity. And they are the bouncers who must maintain a steely edge despite humming show tunes in their heart of hearts.</p><p>As we'll see in the research, surface acting can degrade our mental well-being. This deterioration can be especially true of people who must contend with negative emotions or situations inside while displaying an elated mood outside. Hochschild argues such emotional labor can lead to exhaustion and self-estrangement—that is, surface actors erect a bulwark against anger, fear, and stress, but that disconnect estranges them from the emotions that allow them to connect with others and live fulfilling lives.</p>
Don't fake it till you make it<p>Most studies on emotional labor have focused on customer service for the obvious reason that such jobs prescribe emotional states—service with a smile or, if you're in the bouncing business, a scowl. But <a href="https://eller.arizona.edu/people/allison-s-gabriel" target="_blank">Allison Gabriel</a>, associate professor of management and organizations at the University of Arizona's Eller College of Management, wanted to explore how employees used emotional labor strategies in their intra-office interactions and which strategies proved most beneficial.</p><p>"What we wanted to know is whether people choose to engage in emotion regulation when interacting with their co-workers, why they choose to regulate their emotions if there is no formal rule requiring them to do so, and what benefits, if any, they get out of this effort," Gabriel said in <a href="https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2020/01/200117162703.htm" target="_blank">a press release</a>.</p><p>Across three studies, she and her colleagues surveyed more than 2,500 full-time employees on their emotional regulation with coworkers. The survey asked participants to agree or disagree with statements such as "I try to experience the emotions that I show to my coworkers" or "I fake a good mood when interacting with my coworkers." Other statements gauged the outcomes of such strategies—for example, "I feel emotionally drained at work." Participants were drawn from industries as varied as education, engineering, and financial services.</p><p>The results, <a href="https://psycnet.apa.org/doiLanding?doi=10.1037%2Fapl0000473" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">published in the Journal of Applied Psychology</a>, revealed four different emotional strategies. "Deep actors" engaged in high levels of deep acting; "low actors" leaned more heavily on surface acting. Meanwhile, "non-actors" engaged in negligible amounts of emotional labor, while "regulators" switched between both. The survey also revealed two drivers for such strategies: prosocial and impression management motives. The former aimed to cultivate positive relationships, the latter to present a positive front.</p><p>The researchers found deep actors were driven by prosocial motives and enjoyed advantages from their strategy of choice. These actors reported lower levels of fatigue, fewer feelings of inauthenticity, improved coworker trust, and advanced progress toward career goals. </p><p>As Gabriel told <a href="https://www.psypost.org/2021/01/new-psychology-research-suggests-deep-acting-can-reduce-fatigue-and-improve-your-work-life-59081" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">PsyPost in an interview</a>: "So, it's a win-win-win in terms of feeling good, performing well, and having positive coworker interactions."</p><p>Non-actors did not report the emotional exhaustion of their low-actor peers, but they also didn't enjoy the social gains of the deep actors. Finally, the regulators showed that the flip-flopping between surface and deep acting drained emotional reserves and strained office relationships.</p><p>"I think the 'fake it until you make it' idea suggests a survival tactic at work," Gabriel noted. "Maybe plastering on a smile to simply get out of an interaction is easier in the short run, but long term, it will undermine efforts to improve your health and the relationships you have at work. </p><p>"It all boils down to, 'Let's be nice to each other.' Not only will people feel better, but people's performance and social relationships can also improve."</p>
You'll be glad ya' decided to smile<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="88a0a6a8d1c1abfcf7b1aca8e71247c6"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/QOSgpq9EGSw?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span><p>But as with any research that relies on self-reported data, there are confounders here to untangle. Even during anonymous studies, participants may select socially acceptable answers over honest ones. They may further interpret their goal progress and coworker interactions more favorably than is accurate. And certain work conditions may not produce the same effects, such as toxic work environments or those that require employees to project negative emotions.</p><p>There also remains the question of the causal mechanism. If surface acting—or switching between surface and deep acting—is more mentally taxing than genuinely feeling an emotion, then what physiological process causes this fatigue? <a href="https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fnhum.2019.00151/full" target="_blank">One study published in the <em>Frontiers in Human Neuroscience</em></a><em> </em>measured hemoglobin density in participants' brains using an fNIRS while they expressed emotions facially. The researchers found no significant difference in energy consumed in the prefrontal cortex by those asked to deep act or surface act (though, this study too is limited by a lack of real-life task).<br></p><p>With that said, Gabriel's studies reinforce much of the current research on emotional labor. <a href="https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/2041386611417746" target="_blank">A 2011 meta-analysis</a> found that "discordant emotional labor states" (read: surface acting) were associated with harmful effects on well-being and performance. The analysis found no such consequences for deep acting. <a href="https://doi.apa.org/doiLanding?doi=10.1037%2Fa0022876" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Another meta-analysis</a> found an association between surface acting and impaired well-being, job attitudes, and performance outcomes. Conversely, deep acting was associated with improved emotional performance.</p><p>So, although there's still much to learn on the emotional labor front, it seems Van Dyke's advice to a Leigh was half correct. We should put on a happy face, but it will <a href="https://bigthink.com/design-for-good/everything-you-should-know-about-happiness-in-one-infographic" target="_self">only help if we can feel it</a>.</p>
Archaeologists discover a cave painting of a wild pig that is now the world's oldest dated work of representational art.