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These are the benefits of reading

Neuroscience researcher Adolfo García tells us what happens in our brain when we read and why we should never stop doing it.

Some benefits:

- Letters generate intense activity patterns in the left temporo-occipital area. A fundamental area for the development of reading skills.

- Systematic and guided reading exercise generates changes in mechanisms that are associated not only with reading but with other cognitive skills.

- Encourages “theory of mind”, the ability to infer what other people feel or think, without them saying it

-The sustained habit of reading encourages the “cognitive reserve”, which is the resistance of the brain to the decline of aging.

Adolfo's testimony: myths and benefits of reading

 What have been the main findings of neuroscience in relation to what is produced by reading in the brain? 

 One of the most forceful findings has to do with the detection of a specific brain area that specializes in letter recognition , basically. This is what was called some time ago “the area of the visual form of words” and today some authors call “the letter box of the brain”, a metaphor not very accurate because there is no such box containing letters but a brain region that plays an important role in the biological processes that are the basis of reading. This region is called the left ventral temporo-occipital, in 95% of the world's population that area specializing in letter recognition is strongly lateralized towards the left hemisphere of the brain.

 Is that why people who have more ease for matters related to the arts, letters, words use the left hemisphere of the brain more and those who deal with the most exact or hard sciences, the right? 

There are actually many brain functions that are lateralized, that is, in which one hemisphere has more predominance than another, but this is only true for very micro functions.

The lateralization of logical and creative, artistic functions is a myth that has spread in an incredible way. The truth is that there is not a single piece of scientific evidence in favor of that, and it does not resist much analysis either.

To raise a dichotomy between rational logical processes, on the one hand, and creative, aesthetic, poetic processes, on the other, does not make much sense. Many of the resources that make good art, be programmatic, improvised, have to do with logical skills: from musical compositions, rhyming establishments, the plot of a novel, there are a lot of cause-consequence ties, even mathematical patterns, then it would be half silly to exclude them from what it is creativity or artistic. In fact there is participation of both hemispheres in activities that one can boast more creative or logical. But outside of it there are functions that are lateralized, for example: everything that is perceived with the right ear is first processed in the primary auditory area of the left hemisphere and vice versa. The same goes for the control of the hands and legs, the movements of the right part of the body are controlled by the left hemisphere, and those on the left - the right. And that also happens with vision. So there is lateralization but not at that level of things as abstract as creativity or logical thinking, that is what is called a “neuromite.” 

But one of those functions that is lateralized is the recognition of letters. And this left ventral temporo-occipital region is an area that allows the integration of systems, mechanisms, which allow to recognize visual forms, distance, combination of lines in visual space, with other mechanisms that are specialized for processing speech sounds, phonemes, and reading is basically that: put into dialogue visual forms, associate them with certain sound patterns, arbitrarily. Then this region has an anatomical distribution in the brain that puts it in an ideal place to promote that integration between visual and phonological information.

At the end of the 20th century, in about 1989, experiments were started comparing which brain areas were activated when the person saw written letters versus other characters that are not letters, and it was found that the letters generate intense and distinctive patterns of activity in this same temporo-occipital area left. What is more, with more recent research in neuroscience you can also see what is the level of connectivity, how different networks are connected in the brain, and one thing that has been discovered is that boys who have dyslexia, a developmental disorder in reading abilities, have reduced connectivity in networks that have reduced connectivity. involve this particular region of the brain. So this is a very important area for this particular skill.

 Understanding that there are different degrees of dyslexia, is reading beneficial for those suffering from this disorder? 

Indeed there are different types of dyslexia, the most widespread models today distinguish six different. And there are treatments and rehabilitation programs that are successful, but their success depends on a lot of factors such as the age at which the diagnosis is known, the age at which treatment is started, the assiduity of treatment, whether there is a history of dyslexia in the family, and also the type. There are also studies that show that in children who have other types of reading difficulties, if an intervention is done, a program to improve and strengthen reading skills, changes are made in brain connectivity, that is, systematic and guided reading exercise generates changes in mechanisms that are they associate not only with reading but with other cognitive skills. Reading is always at stake with other cognitive processes. 

Another thing that has been discovered is that different words have different cognitive costs when reading, that is, there are words that cost the brain more to be read, for example: words that are more frequent are read faster, processed with less cognitive effort than those that are less frequent.

 This is interesting to understand that reading, even if we call it a singular noun, is not a single thing but that there are different mechanisms that the mind takes over depending on the type of stimulus and word it is facing. There are some studies that began to investigate what happens when you face literary texts, for example.

 And what did they find out? 

One thing that was discovered is that there is a cognitive ability that is called “theory of mind”, it is a capacity that everyone has from a very young age to be able to infer what someone else feels or what else thinks without telling us. You can see, for example, aspects of your face or other bodily keys. Even this is measured with static photographs. People who have better mind theory are more right in infering how a person feels just looking at an image of their eyes, for example, than people who have worse theory of mind. AND

 a recent finding showed that regular readers of narratives, novels, fiction have better theory of mind than those who do not read fiction. One interpretation that has been given to this is that the narrative experience makes one constantly put on the other's shoes, in the protagonist's shoes, and has to refining his abilities to implicitly infer what that person is feeling.

 Another research measured the brain activity of a group of people, over the days, while reading a novel. Participants were asked to read at the rate of about 30 pages of the novel per day, in their homes, and every morning they were made to go to the laboratory and measured their brain activity, for nine days. And, on the other hand, they were also evaluating what was going on with another group of people who did not read the novel. What they found was that readers had greater cerebral connectivity in the left temporal cortex, which is part of this region that is intimately associated with reading and also participates in general language processes, crucially in language comprehension. 

 Are there more reading benefits that have been discovered since neuroscience? 

Yes. There is a concept called “cognitive reserve”, it is the resistance that the brain has to the decline of aging. You may have memory problems, take longer to find the right word, symptoms typical of old age.Reading , the sustained habit of reading, has been shown to be one of the elements that seem to confer more cognitive reserve. For example, patients with Alzheimer's who have reading habits develop the first symptoms years later than those who do not.

 Findings have also been achieved in people with Parkinson's. One of the ways we understand language is because the brain internally simulates what we read, for example: there is a set of circuits that allow us to move the legs and arms, when we read a sentence like “John is jumping”, which alludes to the movement of the legs, part of the circuits that are activated and Help to understand the sentence are the same as the one who reads allow you to move his legs, that is one of the manifestations of what is called “embodied cognition.” 

 It has been discovered that patients with Parkinson's disease, who have movement problems, have specific difficulties in understanding the actions in the texts, the rest of the information is well understood, comparable to people who do not have this disease, but when you ask them to understand the actions of the characters, bodily movement, they fail significantly. This seems to me to be interesting because you can find in certain reading deficit an indication that a person may have Parkinson's. And it also shows that reading is a complex, varied and not exhausting process in itself, basically reading you handcrafted to the entire body experience, situated, human. Recognizing these links not only allows us to better understand reading in itself, in its complexity, in its ubiquity in the mind and in the brain, but also to think about new ways of intervening either for the diagnosis or for the rehabilitation of various difficulties of cognition in general.


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