Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

WRITERS’ WORLD
with Bisi Daniels,bisi.daniels@thisdaylive.com;
Blog: www.bisidaniels.com, 08093618000

Not many people read novels in Nigeria. Yet studies continue to add to the body of findings on the benefits of this simple exercise. The following are recent research findings, from various sources, on the advantages of reading novels. For example, it has been confirmed that reading may help people suffering from depression

Boosting brain connectivity: A new study by Emory University neuroscientist Gregory Berns and his team, in which participants’ brains were scanned before, during and five days after reading a novel has found persistent neurological changes. Berns has spent decades using MRI imaging technology to study how the human brain works, but a different question.
The book–Robert Harris’ Pompeii–was given to 19 people to read.
They were scanned every day, over 19 consecutive days, to assess the brain’s resting state: in other words, what it’s doing when it’s doing nothing in particular.
The results, published in the journal Brain Connectivity, showed that there were changes in the brain’s resting state that persisted after participants had finished reading the novel.
The lead author, Gregory Berns, explained:
“Even though the participants were not actually reading the novel while they were in the scanner, they retained this heightened connectivity. We call that a ‘shadow activity,’ almost like a muscle memory.”
The heightened connectivity was seen in the areas of the brain associated with receptivity to language: the left temporal cortex. However, these changes in resting brain state were relatively short-lived.
The scans also revealed greater activity in the area of the brain responsible for the sense of touch and embodiment, the somatosensory cortex.
The changes here persisted for five days after participants had finished reading the novel.
Berns commented:
“The neural changes that we found associated with physical sensation and movement systems suggest that reading a novel can transport you into the body of the protagonist. We already knew that good stories can put you in someone else’s shoes in a figurative sense. Now we’re seeing that something may also be happening biologically.”
So, while reading a good novel can leave its mark psychologically in the mind, it can also leave its mark biologically on the brain. And, as William Styron said:
“A great book should leave you with many experiences, and slightly exhausted at the end. You live several lives while reading.”
He was right: both metaphorically and literally.

Improvement in mental flexibility: Writing which challenges the reader to think more deeply could boost mental flexibility, new research finds.
People who read poetry and other texts that required them to re-evaluate the meaning showed fascinating changes to patterns of activation in the brain.
Greater mental flexibility — which these patterns suggested — allows people to better adapt their thoughts and behaviours to evolving situations.
Rather than always being guided by habits, people with greater mental flexibility are better at seeking out new solutions.
Professor Philip Davis, one of the study’s authors, said:
“The research found that the sustained experience of reading poems might be expected to challenge rigid expectancies and fixed thoughts and to increase mental flexibility through the process of the reappraisal of meaning and the acceptance of fresh meanings, a process that was experienced as intrinsically rewarding.”
For the research, people rated texts on the basis of their ‘poeticness’ and how much they had to re-think meaning while reading.
Some text required more effort than others.
Brain scans showed increased activity in key brain networks when people read the more complex texts and had greater literary awareness.
Professor Davis said:
“This is especially promising since the activated areas of the brain that provided a sense of reward in the very process of activisation is known to be particularly under-vitalised in those suffering from depression.”

Increased empathy and social reasoning: To test this, Keith Oatley, professor emeritus of cognitive psychology at the University of Toronto, and some colleagues ran a few studies. While the results are preliminary, they are nonetheless interesting.
In one study, Oatley asked people to choose the emotion expressed in a photograph of a person’s eyes (intended to be a measure of empathy). Readers of fiction scored higher.
Professor Raymond Mar wanted to further test that empathy is a product of reading fiction (as opposed to empathetic people being drawn to fiction). He randomly divided two groups of subjects, one of which read a short work of fiction and the other a piece of non-fiction. The subjects were then asked to demonstrate “social reasoning.” Again, the fiction readers performed better.
Our brains interpret fiction differently. In another study, Oatley rewrote a piece of fiction as a piece of non-fiction. Basically, he took a story and made it into the transcript of a trial. Subjects who read the fiction version felt more emotion. The more emotion they felt, the more they changed. Oatley speculates the personality shifts may be produced by the reader entering into the fictional character’s mind. That is, we identify with what we’re reading.

More benefits of reading novels
Lana Winter-Hébert, writer and editor, lists more benefits of reading novels.

Mental Stimulation: Studies have shown that staying mentally stimulated can slow the progress of (or possibly even prevent) Alzheimer’s and Dementia, since keeping your brain active and engaged prevents it from losing power. Just like any other muscle in the body, the brain requires exercise to keep it strong and healthy, so the phrase “use it or lose it” is particularly apt when it comes to your mind.

Stress Reduction: No matter how much stress you have at work, in your personal relationships, or countless other issues faced in daily life, it all just slips away when you lose yourself in a great story. A well-written novel can transport you to other realms, while an engaging article will distract you and keep you in the present moment, letting tensions drain away and allowing you to relax.

Knowledge: Everything you read fills your head with new bits of information, and you never know when it might come in handy. The more knowledge you have, the better-equipped you are to tackle any challenge you’ll ever face.
Additionally, here’s a bit of food for thought: should you ever find yourself in dire circumstances, remember that although you might lose everything else—your job, your possessions, your money, even your health—knowledge can never be taken from you.

Vocabulary Expansion: The more you read, the more words you gain exposure to, and they’ll inevitably make their way into your everyday vocabulary. Being articulate and well-spoken is of great help in any profession, and knowing that you can speak to higher-ups with self-confidence can be an enormous boost to your self-esteem. It could even aid in your career, as those who are well-read, well-spoken, and knowledgeable on a variety of topics tend to get promotions more quickly (and more often) than those with smaller vocabularies and lack of awareness of literature, scientific breakthroughs, and global events.
Reading books is also vital for learning new languages, as non-native speakers gain exposure to words used in context, which will ameliorate their own speaking and writing fluency.

Stronger Analytical Thinking Skills: Have you ever read an amazing mystery novel, and solved the mystery yourself before finishing the book? If so, you were able to put critical and analytical thinking to work by taking note of all the details provided and sorting them out to determine “whodunnit”.
That same ability to analyze details also comes in handy when it comes to critiquing the plot; determining whether it was a well-written piece, if the characters were properly developed, if the storyline ran smoothly, etc. Should you ever have an opportunity to discuss the book with others, you’ll be able to state your opinions clearly, as you’ve taken the time to really consider all the aspects involved.

Improved Focus and Concentration: In our internet-crazed world, attention is drawn in a million different directions at once as we multi-task through every day. In a single 5-minute span, the average person will divide their time between working on a task, checking email, chatting with a couple of people (via chat, skype, etc.), keeping an eye on twitter, monitoring their smartphone, and interacting with co-workers. This type of ADD-like behaviour causes stress levels to rise, and lowers productivity.
When you read a book, all of your attention is focused on the story—the rest of the world just falls away, and you can immerse yourself in every fine detail you’re absorbing. Try reading for 15-20 minutes before work (i.e. on your morning commute, if you take public transit), and you’ll be surprised at how much more focused you are once you get to the office.
Better Writing Skills: This goes hand-in-hand with the expansion of your vocabulary: exposure to published, well-written work has a noted effect on one’s own writing, as observing the cadence, fluidity, and writing styles of other authors will invariably influence your own work. In the same way that musicians influence one another, and painters use techniques established by previous masters, so do writers learn how to craft prose by reading the works of others.
Tranquility: In addition to the relaxation that accompanies reading a good book, it’s possible that the subject you read about can bring about immense inner peace and tranquility.