It goes without saying that (after coffee and the weekend) books are pretty much the greatest things ever invented. Not only do they tell us stories and give us moments of escape, they also quench our curiosity, teaching us new information about the world. This bunny understands this joy completely.
What we don’t always think about is the healthy boost that books give our brains. If jumping jacks and lunges are good for your body, books and learning are great for your brain. If you need another reason to crack open a fact-filled book, here are some great cranium-based benefits.
In some ways, your brain is like a muscle – if you exercise certain parts a lot, they grow stronger. Whenever you learn a new skill or commit something to memory, you force your brain to rewire itself. Literally! Learning involves making new connections between clusters of neurons in different parts of the brain. And each time you practise the skill or refresh your memory, you make the new circuits slightly stronger, like wearing a footpath through a field. Think of it like a workout class for your brain, making your neural circuits faster and stronger. Keep going!
There’s plenty of evidence that intellectual challenges help slow down the decline of the brain during old age. People such as scientists and political activists who keep working and problem-solving well past normal retirement age often show very few signs of mental aging until the last few months of life.
This is partly because of the point above – learning new things helps make and keep the connections between neurons sheathed in something called myelin. When a neuron fires, it triggers activity in neighbouring oligodendrocytes (say that ten times fast), a type of structural or glial cell, which then wraps myelin around the axons of active cells. The myelin acts like insulation, allowing electrical impulses to flow swiftly along the axons. The white matter formed by myelin tends to shrivel with age if the connections are not kept in good repair, so keeping it intact by learning new things is an important way of preventing brain aging.
Literacy may improve the ability to make fine distinctions between spoken sounds. Tests have shown that when literate people hear a spoken sound they do not recognize as a word, a wider network of brain areas becomes active than in those who cannot read or write. This enables them to compare the unknown word with a great number of possible matches, as they hear the word’s phonological components more accurately. So keep reading (and writing, and chatting)!
Speaking of chatting, being fluent in two languages enhances various cognitive skills and might also protect against the onset of dementia and other age-related cognitive decline. One reason for this may be that speaking a second language builds more connections between neurons. Studies show that bilingual adults have denser grey matter, especially in the inferior frontal cortex of the brain’s left hemisphere, where most language and communication skills are controlled.
All the more reason for you to pick up that long-lost French. Allez!
Feeling inspired? Everyone is creative, but those who can put their brains into “idle” on demand are more likely to open up their minds to new possibilities and generate original ideas. This process only works, however, if the brain is already “primed” with knowledge that can be combined with the new material. Artists who have mastered the basics of their discipline, for instance, have a foundation of knowledge onto which improvements and changes can be fused. This expertise allows this process to operate unconsciously, leaving greater resources available for processing new stimuli.
So, the better you learn a craft or a skill, the more of your brain that opens up to allow imaginative thought.