“The more that you read, the more that you will know. The more that you’ll learn, the more places you will go.”
– Dr. Seuss
Our Connector to The World Around us
When it comes to reading, we generally know and accept that it’s a needed and valuable skill. We know that we need it to learn and participate in school. We also know that a lot of important information comes our way in the form of text to be read – everything from crucial documents, to contracts, to instructions, to the Starbucks menu, to tweets and instagram captions, to textbooks, to the news – on a daily basis. In fact, reading can be the key that gives us access to many parts of our current world so, if you read,“the more places you will go.” When you pause to think about it, you probably already read a shocking amount before you even got to work this morning! What is perhaps even more incredible, is that your brain was able to do that while you did other things, like get your coffee or get you and your family dressed and out the door (a feat in itself!).
In fact, because so much of our world involves reading, and because we are often doing it in conjunction with other activities, we often assume that it is something that should come naturally, like speaking or hearing. However, unlike speaking and hearing – which have their own dedicated regions in the brain – reading isn’t something that originally came with the human brain. Reading is a human invention, so it actually feels far from natural to a lot of people, which is why teachers at schools and companies like Hoot exist to help – not everyone has their hardwiring down the same way, so we help train the brain so that it can read.
The Science Behind Our Reading Brain
Reading is actually a very sophisticated and complex process because it requires many areas of our brain to work together, and our success at reading is not only dependent on the proficiency of each individual area (expressive language, receptive language, visual processing, memory, reasoning, etc.), but it’s also dependent on the quality of the super highway that connects each of those regions so that they can work together. One of my favourite ways of thinking about our reading brain was said by Thomas Oppong in his article,Your Brain on Reading, in which he explained:
“The reading brain can be likened to the real-time collaborative effort of a symphony orchestra, with various parts of the brain working together, like sections of instruments to maximize our ability to decode the written text in front of us.”
And it’s true, like an orchestra, it takes many different parts working together at once, all doing their very best, while simultaneously listening and responding to each other, in order for our brains to read.
So, let’s break down what’s happening between all of those different areas of the brain.
First, we need both expressive and receptive language, or speaking and hearing. This is our foundation and it’s why it is so integral that babies and toddlers are consistently exposed to, and involved in, conversation. We need our temporal lobe to be proficient at discriminating different sounds so that we have the foundation for phonological awareness and we need our Broca’s area in the frontal lobe, which is for speech production, to help us with language comprehension. Those symbols on the page aren’t going to mean much if we don’t have language concepts to relate them to.
Second, our brain needs to be able to take in visual information, manipulate it, and understand it. When we start reading, we need those symbols to evolve from individual letters and sounds to form words. After the occipital lobe takes in the visual information, the angular and supramarginal gyrus help link the different parts of the brain that makes it possible to process what it is we are looking at so the parts (letters) can form a whole (words and sentences).
This is when that super highway, the white matter pathways such as the arcuate nucleus and interior longitudinal fasciculus, jump into action. They connect the language centers, and then those language centers need to be connected with the visual processing centers. The super highway is incredibly important and hardworking because, in order to read effectively, each piece of information has to be travelling at the same time, without stopping.
Can you believe that that was just the decoding?
Our frontal lobe and memory centers still have to join in to make sure what we just read is understood, connected with, and thought about. We need to access our storage of information on memories related to the topic, sort through what does or does not match, visualize it, and then go back through our language centers to communicate what it is we think about what we just read. And I haven’t even mentioned the parts of the brain involved with emotions yet!
It sounds like a lot, doesn’t it?
A Bootcamp For Your Brain
The good news is that Dr. Seuss was onto something – the more you read, the stronger each of these regions and pathways become. You can kind of think of reading as bootcamp for your brain! Not only does each region and pathway improve with reading, but there are many other abilities that are improved within your brain when you read, such as:
- Emotional intelligence* (identifying and understanding one’s own emotions)
- Empathy and social intelligence* (recognizing the emotions and responses of others, and responding in an appropriate and effective way)
- Fluid intelligence (the ability to solve problems, understand concepts, and detect meaningful patterns)
- Attention span
Overall, beyond being a skill that allows us to participate in our society in a meaningful way, and that aids in our success academically, reading is important for the development of our brain and all its capacities. It’s something we have to work at though. There are so many moving parts involved, and each individual part needs to be developed itself, so it’s normal when people struggle with learning to read. It’s not something to be ashamed of because our brains weren’t originally meant to do it but, given time, commitment, and practice, it is something they can grow to do.
After all, the more you read, the more you know.
*This is particularly found when one engages in consistently reading narratives or fictional literature as proven in a study by psychologists David Comer Kidd and Emanuele Castano.
Edwards, S. Reading and the brain [newsletter]. Retrieved from http://neuro.hms.harvard.edu/harvard-mahoney-neuroscience-institute/brain-newsletter/and-brain-series/reading-and-brain
Oppong, T. (2018, May 23). Your Brain on Reading (Why Your Brain Needs You to Read Every Day) [blog post]. Retrieved from
Bury, L. (2013, October 8). Reading literary fiction improves empathy, study finds [blog post]. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/books/booksblog/2013/oct/08/literary-fiction-improves-empathy-study
Hurley, D. (2014, January 23). Can reading make you smarter? [article]. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/jan/23/can-reading-make-you-smarter
Reading Rockets. Reading and the Brain. Retrieved from http://www.readingrockets.org/shows/launching/brain
Tougaw, J. (2018, October 22). The Reading Brain [blog post]. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/ca/blog/the-elusive-brain/201810/the-reading-brain