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Research reveals how reading rewires your brain for more intelligence and empathy

When it comes to fitness, there always seems to be a debate regarding the best ways to get a firm butt, rock-hard abs, and giant biceps.

One day it might be this type of superfood, another day it might be this kind of exercise.

It’s gotten to the point that it seems that food scientists don’t really know what they’re talking about.

But when it comes to how to increase your empathy and intelligence, there is always one consistent answer: reading.

Why reading?

There are a ton of reasons. It’s the one hobby that truly requires a mindset of patience and determination.

And I’m not referring to the reading that many of us do these days, reading 140-character Tweets and article headlines.

The benefits of reading only reveal themselves when we’ve read something worth contemplation.

Reading and the Brain

Perhaps the major reason why reading is so beneficial to our minds is the way they affect our brains.

It was found in one study from 2009 that among children aged eight to ten, those who read more had more white matter in their brain.

White matter is in charge of the brain’s system-wide communication; it carries information throughout the different grey matter regions in the brain, allowing information to be processed regularly.

Children who read more had higher degrees of white matter, meaning they could understand concepts and process information with less difficulty.

There is also the case of reading in a foreign language. When a child is taught to read in a language aside from their native tongue, they find improvements in their communication skills and their spatial navigation.

It allows them to learn new information at a quicker rate and navigate among difficult concepts with more ease.

Finally, readers of a foreign language also have enhanced memories as compared to their peers.

Interestingly enough, another study on the brain found that the topics you are reading about actually stimulate the brain in the appropriate ways.

For example, if you are reading about a certain taste or smell, the parts of your brain that processes that taste or smell are activated simply by the thought of it.

The sensory cortex responds appropriately, as if you are sensing what you are reading in person.


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Learning Empathy Through Reading

reading increases intelligence and empathy

Following the previous line of thought, we can better understand how exactly reading teaches us empathy.

When we read about senses, our brain thinks that we are actually experiencing those senses; and when we read about emotions, we experience those emotions firsthand as well, as if they are actually our own.

We go beyond just actually reading about sadness, betrayal, grief, anxiety; we experience these emotions as if they are our own.

And these experiences have an incredibly profound effect on the way we experience the world and situations around us.

If we end up dealing with a troublesome teenager, we don’t try to remember a misunderstood teenager from one of the books we have previously read.

Instead, we automatically have a better understanding of what teenagers are going through, due to our previous experiences of being inside their heads through reading.

And slowly, we become better people overall through learning empathy from reading. Instead of picking a fight online with someone because of their opinion, we might tend to pull back and let them continue on with their day.

Instead of feeling anger towards a certain uncomfortable situation, we might just learn to relax and learn to let go.

It’s not a surprise that plenty of recognized studies have found that reading assists us in more intelligences than one; it aids our fluid intelligence, as well as our emotional intelligence.

This means that the decisions we make in social situations are smarter and more thought out.

Reading: What’s Important

It’s not just any kind of reading that truly constitutes as the beneficial reading found in these studies.

Reading Tweets or headlines on the Internet won’t improve your emotional intelligence; however, reading novels and even poetry—works of literature that require time, attention, and comprehension—can elicit strong emotional responses among readers.

One study found that those reading novels or poetry regularly experience increased heart rates and goosebumps along their skin.

The important part is that the reading should capture your full attention. The more attention one grants to pleasure reading, the more blood flow they experience to certain neural areas that have been shown to improve cognitive function.

It’s easy to forget about reading in this day and age, especially with the plethora of distractions around us—television, phones, video games, and more.

But take the time to sit back in a good chair with a good book and spend an entire afternoon reading. Your body and your mind will thank you immediately.

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Written by Lachlan Brown

I’m Lachlan Brown, the editor of Ideapod and founder of Hack Spirit. I love writing practical articles that help others live a mindful and better life. I have a graduate degree in Psychology and I’ve spent the last 6 years reading and studying all I can about human psychology and practical ways to hack our mindsets. If you to want to get in touch with me, hit me up on Twitter or Facebook.

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