Reading Saved My Brain Cells

When I finished university three months ago, a weird thing happened to me: I had an overwhelming bunch of free time all of a sudden. Due to this (and of spending most of it lying down bored), I started feeling lethargic; physically but, interestingly, mentally as well. The startling change from writing a dissertation – and focusing my brain every day for months as a result – to watching episode-upon-episode of ‘Friends’ while scanning my mobile for days on end started to become numbing.

I started to feel dumb as hell. So I set myself a promise and a challenge at the same time: I was going to read. A lot. A bunch of different genres, a mix of fact and fiction, as much and as often as possible. I hoped that doing so would kick-start my brain, and change me from being pacified by Netflix to being inquisitive about the world again.

I’ve never been the best at following up on challenges I make to myself, but I don’t think I’ve done too terribly so far. I have read 6 books since the end of May, and am currently half way through my 7th. At the end of this post you can find a list of all the books I’ve made my way through so far, and some on my to-read list – just in case you’re lacking some book recommendations!

To prepare for this post I delved into doing some research to see if there was a conclusive link between this uptake in reading and why I feel much more mentally alert and satisfied recently. Turns out, this is a common feeling when it comes to stepping up your levels of reading, but there are a whole load of other effects that are enhanced resultingly.

For instance, reading fiction increases your ability to empathise. A study carried out by psychologists David Comer Kidd and Emanuele Castano at the New School for Social Research in New York, proves that reading fiction helps you to navigate real-life complex social relationships easier. In explaining these findings, Kidd notes that:

“What great writers do is turn you into the writer. In literary fiction, the incompleteness of the characters turns your mind to trying to understand the minds of others”

So if you’ve ever found yourself reading and wondering why a character would act in such a way, and its wracked your brain for a good chunk of the book (Holden Caulfield, why are you so annoying and stupid?!?) – you’re not alone…especially when it comes to understanding the protagonist in ‘The Catcher in the Rye.’ Your brain is helping you get inside the character’s head, to fully understand them and their actions.

Another great boost I discovered when I set out on this challenge was I got better at concentrating, due to how immersive reading is. It has now gotten to the stage where I can complete a whole bunch of tasks without even breaking concentration to check my mobile. This is because reading helps lengthen your attention span, leading many to suggest that reading a little bit every day can do you a world of good in the long-run.

Also, as shown through the diagram below, reading engages different aspects of your brain to work at once. Just like physical exercise, the more you exercise these mental muscles the stronger they will be and will become in the future:

Image result for reading brain

All of these benefits combined prove one thing: that reading is the greatest workout for your brain, and it’s a workout I hope to continue using often for the foreseeable future.

Books I have read (since May):

  • Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
  • Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
  • Less by Andrew Sean Greer
  • Another Brooklyn by Jacqueline Woodson
  • Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman
  • Slaughterhouse 5 by Kurt Vonnegut
  • Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari (currently reading)

To-Read:

  • All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
  • Catch 22 by Joseph Heller
  • Dreams From My Father by Barrack Obama
  • Democracy in America by Alexis de Tocqueville
  • Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72 by Hunter S. Thompson
  • Race of a Lifetime: How Obama Won the White House by John Heilemann & Mark Halperin

TL;DR: Books are amazing and do so much for us and we do not deserve them (but should definitely try and read everyday anyway).