Why Reading Can Improve Your Brain’s Processing Speed and How to Remember What You’ve Read
Science based finding, connecting reading with brain fitness.
You know what you are doing now? Of course you are reading. You are reading this article. Maybe, you are interested in finding out how reading improves the quality of your life. Maybe, you know about the good things reading will do for you. Maybe, you are here to find out how you can boost the returns from investing time in reading. Whatever the reason, welcome. You are doing the right thing for your brain and body.
What Really Happens When You Read?
A Stanford University research concludes that when you read, you are actually working out your brain. Like you are in a brain gym. By using the fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) researchers were able to trace blood flow to the different regions of the brain beyond those used to think and make decisions. When you read, it is found that many regions across your brain are lighted up. Natalie Phillips, lead of the Stanford research suggests that reading’s effect on the brain is more complex than just work and play.
What does this find mean to you? Plenty. Plenty important. Have you heard about the use it or lose it axiom? Neuroscientists found that neural pathways to regions of your brain you are not lighting up often enough will lose its speed and power.
The brain will reprioritize the more frequently used connections over the unused ones. If you do not use the neural connection, you lose it. That brain region will slow down. You will slowly lose the skills and capabilities associated with that part of the brain.
Whereas, the more frequently used neural pathway will get stronger with it insulation thickening with use. This is important. The neural network in our brain communicate by electric signals.
Thicker insulation means less electric current leak. With thicker insulation, the neural pathway gains power and speed in communication. Researchers find that well insulated neural pathways promote communication up to 100X the speed over the poorly insulated ones. In one science publication a visual metaphor is used to illustrate the point. The difference in the speed of information processing is like jogging versus speeding in a race car.
Poor insulation is caused by lack of use. In essence, by just reading, you would have enhanced the fitness of your brain. Save your money on ginseng, folic acid and the B’s. Buy more books and extend reading subscriptions.
The connection between reading and brain health is electric.
Why Do Other People Read?
Like any muscle in your body, the brain needs exercise to keep it supple and healthy. That reading a book is like working out is not a new discovery.
By science or common sense, they knew this in the 17th century. English playwright, poet, essayist and politician, Joseph Addison (1672-1719) is credited to have said this; “Reading is to the mind what exercise is to the body.”
Keeping your brain engaged and active can slow down, and possibly prevent the onset of Alzheimer’s and Dementia. Reading also improves your memory. Each time a new idea pops from a book, you think about it, new synapses are formed. If it is something you recognize, something that is already stored in your brain, old pathway will be strengthen, thus the improvement in short term memory.
In the Stanford research, it is found that when you read, blood flows into brain regions associated with paying close attention to the task, confirming that reading improves your focus and concentration.
Life enhancing as these benefits of reading are, it seems that very few are aware or are purposefully in pursuit of them. From a research by Pew Research Center, only 3% said they like to be mentally challenged by (reading) books. The bulk of participants said they read to learn, gain knowledge, discover information, escape reality, immerse in another world, use their imagination, be entertained, find spiritual enrichment (close) and to expand their worldview. About 2%, likely kinesthetic in their modality, like the smell feel and smell of physical books.
The 12% who said they enjoyed being relaxed while reading and having a quiet time, were close to identifying a significant health benefit from reading.
University of Sussex reported that a research found significant evidence that reading reduces stress. More effective than even listening to music, have a cuppa or taking a walk.
I am going to assume it is soothing music, and I am going to assume you will never discount flipping pages as the poor alternative again.
Cognitive neuropsychologist, Dr. David Lewis claimed that reading reduces stress by 68% whilst listening to music by 61%, having a cup of coffee or tea by 54% and taking a walk by 42%. He found that reading silently for six minutes can slow down heart rate and ease muscle tension.
The next time you feel angst building, you’ll know what to do. Keep calm and carry on reading.
“Losing yourself in a book is the ultimate relaxation,” said Dr. Lewis.
Kurt Vonnegut, the prolific American writer agrees, “I believe that reading and writing are the most nourishing forms of meditation anyone has so far found. By reading the writings of the most interesting minds in history, we meditate with our own minds and theirs as well. This to me is a miracle.”
Of course, reading will make you a better writer. You will subconsciously adopt a style and the techniques that resonate with you. You will also improve your spelling as you grow your vocabulary. Mental Floss, a knowledge magazine, shared a finding that avid readers can improve their vocabulary and fact-based knowledge by 50%.
In that same article, Mental Floss reported that a team at Yale University found that a daily dose of reading, for just 30 minutes at a go, may lengthen your lifespan by as much as two years. This conclusion is distilled from a study of 3600 adults over the age of 50 for 12 years.
So far, so good. The ‘brainergizing’ effect of reading and its life enhancing power are a zillion times worth the price on the cover of the book or a magazine subscription. From the Pew report, and as a human being yourself with human friends who read, you will appreciate that these benefits are unexpected bonuses. These are not the quo we expected. When we switched on our reading mode, it is not our intention to seek immortality nor to think faster than the peregrine falcon can fly.
What then is your intention when you pick up a book or sign in to Medium? If you are having a hard time, want to distract yourself and get lost, go ahead and get lost. Start that novel or that Medium article. You’ll still enjoy the brainergizing bonuses from reading. You may even get to get lost two years more than others, according to Mental Floss.
What if you want to remember what you read? What if you are serious about self-improvement? What if you want to apply what you’ve read to your life? Then, you’ve to be an active reader.
How to Make Reading Pay More
The passive reader is like the one who wants to get lost. Immersed with the flow of the material, feel the feelings and wind down the emotion when you stop reading. This is hedonistic reading. Instant gratification. You are consuming information.
Learning to application takes work. It requires recording, reflection, resolution, reinforcement and reread.
1. Recording refers to note taking. Everyone has their own way. I have been punished by hardship caused by poor notetaking.
Illegibility. Reading and writing simultaneously. You may be able to write well, I can’t. My notes looked like a bunch of signatures for a petition.
Read the whole segment. Pause. Write down the key elements in a meaningful way to you. Write legibly.
I have also been punished by ‘dead-ending.’ Not leaving a trace. No details on the chapter or page where I took the notes. When I needed to revisit the source because I couldn’t read my own hand-writing, it’s “bang the wall, you won’t feel tall.”
Now that I have been tamed, I am quite detailed. I take notes on ‘exam pads.’ Foolscap, single line, with a left margin and with double punch holes. There is also a subject matter and date space along the header. I will carefully write the book title and the authors on the first page of the notes. Like a good boy, I filled in the date. On subsequent pages, I skip the authors and just write the keyword from the book title.
Whenever, I can get away with being lazy, I get away with being lazy.
In the left margins I have the page and the paragraph. If the paragraph starts on the previous page, I count the lines. I differentiate the lines from the paragraph using the ‘more’ symbol;>.
So, my margin notes will look like this;
45: 3 (Page 45, third paragraph)
78>11 (Page 78, line eleven)
When I finish a chapter, I summarize the chapter in three to five lines.
After I finished my reading for the day, I filed the notes in a plastic file with transparent cover and a slip to write the book title and the author’s name.
2. Reflection is when I review the notes and contemplate on a point, an idea, a concept and even a word. This is important practice in developing analytical thinking, strengthening your ability to focus and strengthening your power of concentration.
Doing this will help hardwire the key concepts into the memory bank of your brain, enhancing your ability to recall. It is easier to recognize than recall. By deeply reflecting on what you have read, you absorb the key ideas into your growing wisdom.
My contemplation of a statement from ‘The Tools’ by Phil Stutz and Barry Michels:
From my notes, 48:2
The statement: ‘I’ve witnessed the incredible Fortitude people can acquire when they struggle with adversity.’
Notes from my contemplation: ‘To me, the essence of this statement sums up the antidote to being stuck. People develop unexpected power and strength to overcome a problem when they take continuous and consistent action to address the pains from the problem. “Incredible fortitude”- the word fortitude describes more than strength. It is power integrated into the character. Incredible is used to describe the possibility of an opportunity thought impossible. It is unexpected but it is possible. Acquire is more than development. It assures me that the power can be secured over time by investing energy and focus, taking the appropriate actions. Struggle describes the nature of the action to be taken. Be prepared for a painful, persevering challenge. With and not against adversity is used to denote the need to look for positives in the adversity and preempt the nature of the impact in order to address it.’
3. Resolution. This step is the call to distill actionable ideas from the notes to support your goals or to make a personal change.
Actionable plan: ‘Develop fortitude:
a) Define a list of the chores you hate doing.
b) Develop a 3 months’ schedule to get them done, starting with the hardest. Rate based on
c) Reflect on the emotional difficulty. Challenge
d) Use the key learning to overcome resistance in other areas.’
4. Reinforcement is the stage when you move beyond developing actionable plans to actually take actions. Besides carrying out your action plans, talk about what you have learned. Better, try to actually coach someone with what you’ve learned.
I picked up the Feynman Technique from a site called Farnam Street. It is named after Nobel Prize-winning physicist, Richard Feynman. They call it the algorithm for guaranteed learning. It is a four step process:
a. Choose a concept you want to learn about
b. Pretend you are teaching it to a student in grade 6
c. Identify gaps in your explanation. Go back to the source material, to better understand it.
d. Review and simplify (optional)
5. Reread. Obviously, the more you reread a book or an article, the more the ideas will stick. It is natural, based on the strengthening of the neural pathway with repetition and practice.
If you find that there are gaps to your learning from the book or article, you may have to reread the stuff. However, you have a choice; you can reread everything written or just refresh with the key concepts.
If you have taken good searchable notes, you can first go over the notes again. This will take about 10% of the time you need to go through the full material. If you are still iffy from the notes, you can then refer to the relevant passage from the book or article.
Here’s the problem from all these work. With so much work, how do I pick the book or article good enough, worth spending this much effort? For articles on Medium or any place online, it is straightforward. Spend a few minutes scanning the post and make a decision if it going to be worth your time. Even quicker, you can look at the tags. Decide if any of the tags resonates with what you are looking for.
Michael Simmons, a writer whom I am following has some smart reading hacks. He uses ‘Fractal Reading’ to effectively select the books to go deep on. This is how he recommends you do it, in his own words:
Read 2–3 book summaries (Google search). For almost any book, you’ll find several book summaries, which often contain the best information in the book (the 20 percent of ideas that create 80 percent of value). And to clarify, I’m only talking about nonfiction books here. This, of course, would not be relevant to fiction.
Listen to an author interview (podcast, Google). Interviews are engaging, and the interviewer does the work for you, asking the author the most pertinent and compelling questions they’ve gleaned from reading the book.
Watch an author presentation (TED, Google, or university talk). When an author is forced to whittle down a 200-page book into a 20-minute talk, they share their biggest idea and best story.
Read the most helpful 1-star, 2-star, 3-star, 4-star, and 5-star reviews (Amazon). Amazon helps us all quickly sort the most well thought-out reviews from readers who loved the book down to those who hated it.
Read the first and last chapters of the book. The first and last chapters of a book often contain the most valuable content in it (this obviously doesn’t work if you’re hoping to get lost in a novel). In addition, the first and last paragraphs of each chapter contain the big ideas of each chapter. With Google Books ebook free samples, and Amazon’s Look Inside feature, it’s often possible to get the first and last chapter of a book for free.
Reading may seem like a sedentary activity, not doing much for your health. I hope you know better now. As you read, you are building your brain muscle. Your neural pathway picks up speed in processing information up to 100X! Your stress level will reduce by 68%. Looks like the ultimate plan is to read a book in Starbucks, listening to your music and sipping coffee.
As a consistent reader, you’ll increase your vocabulary and factual knowledge by 50% over time, making you an interesting conversationalist. You might even win a quiz show or two. Active reading will improve your focus and concentration. And, according to a report at Mental Floss, because you read, you might live two years longer.
With the effective 5R system: recording, reflection, resolution, reinforcement and reread, you’ll able to recall what you read and apply what you’ve learned to change your life. All the smarts you picked up, as you read and applied with the 5R system will be integrated into your personal wisdom.
But, oh. Don’t forget to go to the gym too. You need healthy muscles and a fit body to complement your fast developing brain. Go for a jog. You can’t be zooming in a race car all the time.
Last question before I close. Do you know what you just did?