Friday, February 14, 2014

Reading Is (Possibly?) Good For You, Part 1

Over the last few months, I’ve been hearing a lot about a study done at Emory University in Atlanta about the effects that reading has on the brain. For the study, neuroscientists gave 21 volunteers an fMRI for 30 minutes a day for 19 days. The fMRI is a scanner that allows the researchers to see which parts of the brain are active. The volunteers read a chapter of the novel Pompeii by Robert Harris before each brain scan. The volunteers were also scanned five days before starting the novel and five days after finishing it. The scans showed increased activity in two neural networks after the volunteers read the first chapter, and that increased activity lasted through the rest of the experiment, including the scan five days after finishing the book. The regions of the brain that showed increased activity were a region that is used for language and understanding other people’s perspectives and a region used for controlling the body and responding to touch.

The media immediately pounced on this study and claimed that it shows that reading improves your brain. While I agree that reading is good for you, I don’t think that this study shows that reading improves the brain. In my opinion, there are too many unknowns to make that claim.

First, in the fMRI, the volunteers were told to rest with their eyes closed. Who knows what was happening in their minds during this time. They had to be thinking, or feeling, or reacting to something while lying in a scanner for 30 minutes, right? Even when a person is resting, their brain is still active.

The study doesn’t say much about the participants. I’ve found a few news articles that say that they were students, so if that’s correct, I assume that they must read often. Would the study’s results vary depending on how often the volunteers read?

There was no control group in this experiment, so we don’t know how the brains of people who didn’t read the book compare to the brains of the people who did.

Brains are changing all the time. As far as I know, brains adapt to cope with the environment and the tasks that are demanded of them. Are the changes that were seen in this study really that significant if brains change all the time?

Finally, the study only looked at the volunteers' brains for five days after finishing the novel. How long do the changes in the brain last? Can the changes be considered an improvement if they’re not permanent?

For me, this study creates more questions than answers. Does reading improve the brain? Possibly. For more information, including a link to the study, check out the awesome article in Wired magazine. The author has many of the same questions that I do, and he comes closer to answering them than I do. 

Next week, I’ll list the other ways that reading is (possibly) good for you.

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