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Reading and the brain: infinitely intertwined

This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at Ashoka chapter.

Edited by: Sahana Inuganti

“The more that you read, the more things you will know. The more that you learn, the more places you’ll go.”  –  Dr. Suess

Everyone tells us (cough, indoctrinates, cough) how important it is to cultivate the habit of reading, and how it’s ‘good’ for us. Why, though? Like in most cases, science is the key to answering this ‘why’ that plagues many curious minds.

Reading can, quite literally, rewire our brains. That’s no small feat. In 2009, scientists Timothy Keller (Not Timothée Chalamet. I know, I was disappointed as well.) and Marcel Just discovered that intense reading in young children causes the brain to PHYSICALLY rewire itself. And do you know what that, in turn, does? This makes the brain create more white matter! Oh, and white matter is so important! 

This seemingly complex concept of white matter is actually quite simple to understand! The white matter of our brain and spinal cord is made up of bundles of axons (a part of the neuron that carries nerve impulses). These axons are coated with myelin, a mixture of proteins and lipids, that helps conduct nerve signals and protect the axons. What does White matter do, then? It conducts, processes, and sends nerve signals up and down the spinal cord. Damage to the white matter— well, you really don’t want to know what that entails, trust me. On the off chance that you’re a fellow naturally curious science enthusiast, let me give you a sneak peek into the horrors that white matter damage brings— it could severely hamper your ability to move, damage your sensory faculties, or reaction to external stimuli. Neuroscientists at Stanford University postulated in 2012 that young children’s reading ability is related to the growth of the brain’s white matter tracts— particularly the arcuate nucleus, and the interior longitudinal fasciculus, both of which are, in the simplest of terms, associated with the language centres of the brain. Avid readers saw an increase in the strength of the aforementioned tracts, thus increasing white matter!

Reading is often touted as the best ‘workout’ for the brain, and with good reason.  The act of reading can improve one’s memory. This might raise another (valid) question in your minds—how can assimilating all that written work improve our memory? I’ll tell you how. Reading is a beautifully unique experience—one that is unlike any other form of media consumption. It gives us the freedom to imagine what the words are describing, make our own distinct mental images of characters and it sort of, in a way, makes us the ruler of that imaginary world we very creatively fashion out of paper and ink. This continuous stream of thinking and imagining and creating serves as a ‘mental workout’ and thus, keeps our brain engaged and our memory sharp.  

Do you feel like you’re zoning out right about now? Answer me truthfully, I promise I won’t take it as an insult to my writing! If yes, you might want to make reading a part of your daily routine. Yes, that’s right. Reading increases our attention span significantly. Since a novel follows a set sequence of events, consisting of a beginning, middle and end. This moulds our brain to think and analyse things sequentially instead of jumping to rash conclusions— which in turn increases our attention span.  

An Emory University study’s findings suggest that reading increases the activity of the region of the brain that regulates sensor motor activity. The wonderful art that is reading causes neurons in said region of the brain to not only imagine whatever it is that one is reading but also makes one feel the sensation of whatever the reader is reading! In layman’s terms, you’re essentially in the character’s shoes! This is the foundation of an interesting concept called grounded cognition.  This effect can even be seen in your brain waves when you read. If a character in the book you’re reading is solving a crossword, areas of your brain that would light up if you were physically solving the crossword yourself are activated. 

In conclusion, it’s probably a good idea to add reading a few pages to your daily to-do list. Reading transports us into worlds unknown, makes our curious minds question every little detail, and makes our brains function significantly better. It’s a beautiful relationship these two share— the act of reading and the functioning of the brain. In many ways, there and always will be— infinitely intertwined.

Rhea Wali

Ashoka '26

A dreamer by design, Rhea is a sophomore at Ashoka University, studying biology, and also writes for the Ashoka chapter of Her Campus. She is an avid reader, science enthusiast and a trained Kathak dancer. She enjoys writing poetry, spending time with friends and family, and tries to do her bit to bridge the gap between Einstein and Shakespeare!