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Library Learnings: Make Your Brain Come Alive

“Make your brain come alive”
Eat your greens. Sleep soundly. Quit smoking. Exercise, even gently. Drink only in moderation. Have an annual physical. Avoid drafts. Follow these, and other such well-worn bromides, in order to live healthily, eh? Here’s another how-to-stay-hale-and-hearty admonition, less well-known, but just as valid: read books. Really.
Yes, there’s the obvious upshot…which Dr. Seuss once expressed straightforwardly: “The more that you read, the more things you will know.” But there are lots of other blessings that come with reading books.
“As any avid book reader can tell you, immersing yourself in a great book can make your brain come alive. It sounds romantic, but science is now proving this to be true,” Brendan Brown reports. In a writing several years ago for Australia’s experteditor.com.au, he affirms, “Science has shown that reading has some amazing health benefits, including helping with depression, cutting stress, and reducing the chances of developing Alzheimer’s later in life.”
Regular reading, according to the website Real Simple, “can actually increase your brain power. Just like going for a jog exercises your cardiovascular system, reading regularly improves memory function by giving your brain a good workout. With age comes a decline in memory and brain function, but regular reading may help slow the process, keeping minds sharper longer, according to research published in Neurology.” Naturalsociety.com attests to this, as well: “…elderly people who read experienced slower mental decline than those who didn’t.” As Brown explains, the “details that make up a book stimulate your memory and the ability to recall.”
And such acuity lingers. “Your brain can remain active even after reading your book,” Brown has it. “The increased brain activity associated with reading pages in a book…was found to last for at least several days after reading, according to a 2013 study at Emory University.”
As for staving off such afflictions as Alzheimer’s disease, the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences report a study that found older adults who kept their brains engaged with activities like reading were less likely to suffer from degenerative brain disorders. Real Simple has it that, “Those who engage their brains through activities such as reading…could be 2-1/2 times less likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease than those who spend their down time on less stimulating activities.”
What else book reading can do is reduce tension. “One 2009 study by Sussex University researchers,” which Real Simple points up, “showed that reading may reduce stress by as much as 68%.” In reporting this same study, Huffington Post called reading more effective at reducing stress than listening to music, having a cup of tea, or going for a walk. What’s more, “It really doesn’t matter what book you read; by losing yourself in a thoroughly engrossing book you can escape from the worries and stresses of the everyday world,” cognitive neuropsychologist David Lewis told The Telegraph.
As well, there is, psychology researcher Raymond Mar has observed, in reference to a study published in the journal Science, a “growing body of work that what we read…has a very interesting impact on…our ability to understand what other people are thinking and feeling.”

My head hurts
It was last November that Roy…he didn’t give his last name…wrote to the website progressingspirit.com to ask after God: he had, as he explained, “this overarching question…. What is God?” But before putting his query, he reported how already he’d gone searching for answers: “I’ve read so many books, I had to stop because my head hurts. My reading has included…Borg, Spong, K. Armstrong, Fox, Miles, Vosper, Felton/Murphy, Rollins, Aslan, etc. I am not a scholar, but was and am fascinated (Borg’s word) and driven to understand religion and my own spiritual desire….” [Know that books by those authors, plus many others, fill the shelves of the SSUC Library.]
To be sure, one needs to stay attentive when reading. As Brown has it, “When reading in a focussed manner, similar to the manner in which you would study for a test, blood flow was globally increased, demonstrating that focussed attention during reading necessitates the orchestration of many different cognitive functions.”
Apparently, it also helps to eschew e-books: “Want to really reap the benefits of reading? Reach for an old-fashioned printed book,” Real Simple advises. “…opt for a traditional book. Research shows that reading on a screen can slow you down by as much as 20% to 30%.” To boot, you’ll be more apt to actually remember what it is that you’re reading: the feel of paper pages under your fingertips provides your brain with some context, according to Wired, which can lead to a deeper understanding and better comprehension of the subject.
Mind you, this could be the best reason of all to crack the covers of a book: it could have you living longer. Really. Researchers at the Yale University School of Public Health studied the records of 5,635 participants in a health and retirement study—an ongoing investigation of persons who were 50 and older—who, when the study commenced, provided information about their reading habits.
Perhaps remarkably, the researchers “determined that people who read books regularly had a 20% lower risk of dying over the next 12 years, compared with people who weren’t readers, or who read periodicals [rather than books]. This difference remained regardless of race, education, state of health, wealth, marital status, and depression.” Harvard Medical School concluded its own inspection of this study by declaring the findings “suggest that the benefits of reading books may include a longer life in which to read them.”
So, as Natural Society concludes, “…reading is an extremely healthy habit. Sadly, however, many people don’t appreciate it, with a HuffPost poll [2012] showing…that of 1,000 participants, 28% of those surveyed hadn’t read a book in over a year.”
That couldn’t…mustn’t…include you. Not with a Library so near at hand, right in your own church building, with 600-or-so books there to be borrowed. But wait: they all have to do with religion, more or less, and that’s so heavyweight a subject that it must controvert all those positives that accrue from reading books, right? Wrong. “…the health benefits of reading are produced from all types of books,” authority Andrew Merle affirms, “fiction or non-fiction, poetry or prose.”
South African-born anthropologist and author Ceridwen Dovey certainly found this to be true—with the help of a bibliotherapist. Now living in Sydney, Australia, she tells of this comprehension in her 2015 essay for The New Yorker, “Can reading make you happier?”:
 “Several years ago, I was given as a gift a…session with a bibliotherapist…. I have to admit that at first I didn’t really like the idea of being given a reading ‘prescription’…. But the session was a gift, and I found myself unexpectedly enjoying the initial questionnaire about my reading habits that the bibliotherapist, Ella Berthoud, sent me. Nobody had ever asked me these questions before….
“In response to the question, ‘What is preoccupying you at the moment?’, I was surprised by what I wanted to confess: I am worried about having no spiritual resources to shore myself up against the inevitable future grief of losing somebody I love, I wrote. I’m not religious, and I don’t particularly want to be, but I’d like to read more about other people’s reflections on coming to some sort of early, weird form of faith in a ‘higher being’ as an emotional survival tactic….
 “…when she [Berthoud] sent the final reading prescription,” she adds, “it was filled with gems…,” everything from Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse to José Saramago’s The Gospel According to Jesus Christ, from Sum—neuroscientist David Eagleman’s book about possible afterlives—to The Case for God. That last one, incidentally, is just one of eight books by Karen Armstrong that you’ll find in the SSUC Library.
After working her way through her reading list, Dovey could not but suspect that, in a secular age, reading “is one of the few remaining paths to transcendence, that elusive state in which the distance between the self and the universe shrinks….”
She then references “a jaunty 1916 article in The Atlantic Monthly, ‘A literary clinic’,” which introduces a gentleman called simply Bagster—who is clearly a pioneer in bibliotherapy—who warrants, “‘A book may be a stimulant or a sedative or an irritant or a soporific. The point is that it must do something to you.’” The writer of that more-than-a-hundred-years-old tale concluded that it’s books that “‘put new life into us, and then set the pulse strong….’”
Dovey concludes her own New Yorker article by borrowing lines from Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus: “‘Come, and take choice of all my library, and so beguile thy sorrow….’”
You now are invited…urged…to “take choice” of what you’ll find awaiting your visit to your own church Library—there’s lots. Really.
Ken Fredrick
Gatherings at 10AM Sundays