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Does reading change your brain?

If ever you wanted an argument to justify why you spend many hours of your life reading,  some recent research by Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, might fit the bill.

Apparently the university’s Centre for Neuropolicy ran an experiment with undergraduate students to determine if levels of activity in the brain were affected by reading a page-turning novel. Over the course of nine days, the students were given assignments in which they read sections of Robert Harris’ novel Pompeii . Their brain patterns before and after reading were then compared.

What the experiment showed was that the reading activity affected the brain in two different ways — improving the parts of the brain associated with language receptivity and with sensation. The effects lasted for several hours after the students finished their assigned reading.

Neuroscientist Gregory Berns, the academic who lead the study, isn’t ready to declare that the experiment shows reading will result in long lasting changes in  neural patterns but he does state: “your favorite novels could certainly have a bigger and longer-lasting effect on the biology of your brain. ”

So next time you get accused of ‘wasting time’ on reading, maybe you can simply refer your critics to Mr Berns.

For the full article on Does Reading Change Your Brain, click here

Sunday Salon: Becoming better readers

sundaysalonLast week’s Sunday Salon was about the experience of acquiring books to read – and the merits of browsing randomly for interesting novels versus searching for ones to tick off our TBR lists. This week, an email from the Writers and Artists Team at Bloomsbury Publishing got me thinking about the experience of actually reading .

A  quick trawl through the blogosphere shows how practices and habits differ. Some people seem to be serial readers, actively seeking out the next title from their favourite author or the next that features the same central character. Some read according to categories (historical fiction, classics, fantasy etc). Then there are those who read multiple texts in parallel and those who  prefer to read only one at a time.

According to the Writers and Artists Team, whichever approach we choose to take, if we want to be serious readers then we have to engage actively with the text. In other words we have to:

read with focus, read with awareness and read effectively.

By that they mean looking beyond the basic plot and storyline and being attentive more to the construction of the text. They recommend five steps that anyone who wants to hone their skills as readers, should consider when reading a novel:

  1. Setting – where and when is it set? How does the author convey the setting? Which senses are being used?
  2. Perspective – who is telling the story? Are they a reliable narrator? How does their relationship to the story affect the way it is presented to the reader?
  3. Character – who are the key characters? What are we explicitly told about each character and what are we subtly shown? Focusing on the key characters, what are their motivations? What obstacles do they face?
  4. Structure – does the story unfold linearly or does it jump about in time? How does this affect our understanding of the events? Mark the points of crises, tension, climax and the final dénouement.
  5. Style – how are the sentences constructed? Are they short and punchy or long and carefully embellished? How does this impact on the pace?

None of these are particularly earth shattering pieces of advice. They likely appear in all good school text books on literary analysis. But they are useful starting points. I’ve found David Lodge’s  The Art of Fiction
to be a more detailed guide , particularly the sections dealing with techniques such as showing and telling, point of view, and time-shifting.

Having said that, I’ve come to realise this week that I never consciously think about any of this when I am reading. Most likely  I have missed a lot of the richness of meaning as a result. So I’m making a mental note to think more about what I’m reading – it might mean slowing down the pace at which I read but that’s ok. I’m not in a race…..

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