Why reading matters | Rita Carter | TEDxCluj

Why reading matters | Rita Carter | TEDxCluj

Translator: Rosa Baranda
Reviewer: Peter van de Ven If I came and told you
there is this one thing you could all do which would make you more imaginative,
make your memory better, probably improve
your personal relationships, and make you a nicer person, you would probably be very skeptical. And even more so
if I said it costs nothing and probably everybody in this room
can already do it. Now, you will probably have guessed by now that I’m talking about reading – there’s a clue in the title. But I’m not talking
about the sort of reading that we all know is incredibly important; that is, the sort of reading
we do for education, the sort of reading
we do for administration, the sort of reading which we have to do
nowadays just to get through life. I’m talking rather
about fiction, stories, narratives – the sort of reading where you are reading
things from inside another person’s head, where it takes you right inside the character’s emotions
and feelings and actions so you are seeing it
from their perspective. That’s the sort of reading
which is at best thought of as pleasurable and at worst quite often
as a waste of time. I mean, I remember my mother telling me that when she was a child
she was crazy about books but that her father once ripped
a novel out of her hands, saying that ‘If you have to read,
at least read something useful.’ What I want to tell you today is that, surprisingly,
fiction is very useful indeed, in ways that we probably
never previously suspected; in fact, it’s more important, probably,
than any other form of reading. And I have some new evidence, which comes rather surprisingly
out of the brain sciences, to support that, which I’ll come to. First of all, some not-so-new evidence: in 2013 there was a series of experiments done by two New York psychologists,
David Kidd and Emanuele Castano. What they did was take people
and ask them to read quite short passages
from various types of books. Some of them were nonfiction books,
explanatory or learning books, and some of them where thrillers, plots, where you read about the events
happening in a story but not very much about the people;
you weren’t inside their heads. And the third sort was the sort of fiction
I am talking about, which is when you were reading things
from the perspective of the characters. After that, the researchers got the people
to look at a series of photographs of people with very strong facial
expressions of one sort or another, and they were asked to judge
from the expressions alone what they thought was going on
inside those people’s heads. This is actually quite a standard test for something that we call
‘Theory of Mind’, which is a rather bad phrase, I think, for a faculty which we’re all,
I hope, pretty familiar with; we’ve all got it
to some extent or another. And that is the intuitive ability to see from the way a person is moving
or expressing themselves what is going on in their head. It allows us to,
just at least for a moment, to step outside our own heads and see the world for a bit
from other people’s point of view. And the same faculty, by extension, opens up whole worlds to us because it allows us
to imagine what it’s like to be somewhere else,
doing something else, seeing it in a different way. And thus people who don’t have it
are quite severely handicapped, particularly in social life – they find relationships very difficult – and more than that, they are limited
by a very limited imagination. Because without that ability
to step outside yourself, it’s difficult to imagine
anything, really. Now, you don’t actually have to look
at academic papers to see this effect. We’re all quite familiar with it. I want to tell you about a particular – A few years ago, I went to a reading group which was for people
with various types of mental issues. A lot of them had had
severe depression or anxiety, and they had come together
to start a reading group. And I joined several months in, when it was already having effect. The particular meeting I went to
they were reading ‘Wuthering Heights’, the English novel, and I just got to this bit
where Kathy, the heroine, had to decide between marrying
either boring old Linton or this wildly exciting
tempestuous chap, Heathcliff. So I just want you to see
what they had to say. – Every Linton on the face of the earth
might melt into nothing before I could consent
to forsake Heathcliff. – Stop there, Faye. Is this sort of state she’s in
something you’d aspire to? Would you like to be feeling
what Katherine’s feeling? – Definitely! – I want to feel it all the time,
and I felt like that, you know, happy nearly all the time,
and it can last for weeks, months. – It’s a beautiful idea: one moment
she’s like ‘I am Heathcliff’, and then you get the sense that it could be very,
you know, dangerous as well. – She’s marrying someone
under false pretenses. – I could imagine it then
from Linton’s point of view. Imagine marrying Katherine but then knowing she’s in love
with somebody else. And he will, he will find out. – I think deep down
she should be with Heathcliff. – I think in one way she’s sexually
attracted to him, and the passion. – Yeah.
– Yes. – And I think she should go for it. (Laughter) It did seem to me as I watched
and listened to those people that this quite simple act of reading
fiction had really changed their lives; and in fact, in one case
it actually saved a life. I know that – as you will probably see
in the end, I’ll come to it. Now, the question that occurred to me was, What on Earth is happening
in people’s brains to have this rather
profound effect, this pastime? So I just want to go a little bit
over what is happening in the brain. You probably know that our brains
are made up of neurons, electrical cells, and that they join together
to form pathways, which have electricity zapping
back and forth endlessly, and that electricity ebb and flow is our thoughts, our emotions,
and our feelings. Some of these pathways
are pretty similar in all of us because they’re actually
built into our genes. Up here, on the left here,
they’re the pathways we all have which take light from the eyes
to the visual cortex, so the back of our head. On the other side of the frame, you have got the connections
between the two hemispheres of the brain so that each side quite literally
knows what the other is doing. Now, I just want to show you quickly the difference between
speaking and reading because they are very different. Speaking is something
that, again, is in our genes, we already have those pathways
wired into us when we are born. All you have to do is put a baby
around people who are talking and sooner or later they will
start to do it too, it’s natural. But reading is not. You could put a baby in a library,
surrounded by books, from the day it’s born, and it would never start
spontaneously reading. It has to be taught how to do it. And this is the reason
speech has been with us for at least 100,000 years, quite time for natural selection
to actually get it wired into our brains. But reading probably only started
about 5,000 years ago, and until about 100 years ago,
most people didn’t do it at all. So rather than being able
to use those pre-wired, intuitive, if you like, pathways, every time, every person
who learns to read has to do it afresh. And that means making
new pathways, individual pathways, the sort that individuals
do make all through their life. Every time they have an experience
will lay down a memory or a new habit; they create individual pathways,
on top of the basic blueprint. And that’s what we have
to do when we read. Quickly, when you look
at a brain that’s speaking, it’s fairly straight forward:
if you see a dog, say. Information zooms to the back
of the head, visual cortex, then sort of chunks forward. As it chunks forward, it picks up
memories of what it’s looking at until by the time it gets
to that blue area, which is the first
of the major language areas, it is then able to put a word to it. And then it gets jogged on again
to that next red area, Broca’s, and that’s when we remember how to say it. Quite literally, the motor area,
which is that green stripe, is then instructed to send instructions
to our lips and our tongues to actually make the word. That’s how speaking works. And, as I say, it’s natural,
those pathways are there already. But reading is
a very different kettle of fish. When we see abstract symbols written down,
our brain has to do far more work. It actually has to,
when we are learning to read, we have to create
all those new connections in many, many different
parts of the brain. You can see the red bits,
or the lit-up bits. You can see these aren’t clear,
easy, one-trap pathways. These are really complicated networks that are being formed
in the brain when we read. So your brain is doing a lot more work,
it’s connecting far more parts. If you like, it’s a more
holistic experience. It forces you to use parts of the brain
that aren’t usually used. More than that, the reason,
or one reason why it’s so widespread, is that when we read things
about somebody doing something, run for their life or they’re screaming
or they’re frightened, what happens in the brain of the reader
is that those same bits of the brain that would be active
if they were doing it themselves, become active. Admittedly not quite to the same extent,
or we’d act out everything we read, and we can usually inhibit them
enough not to do that, but basically – These are brain scans of people, you can see from the color chart below, they’re reading. The actual movement produces
the pattern on your left, and when you’re reading it, what is happening in your brain
is the pattern on the right. And as you see, they are very similar,
with the only difference being that when you’re reading about things,
it’s not quite as intense. If it carried on in intensity,
you would act it out. Because the important thing about reading is that you’re not just learning
what’s going on in that person’s head. You, too, to a certain extent
are experiencing it. And there’s a very big difference there. It’s the same with everything. With pain – if watch or read about somebody in pain, the same bits of the brain that would
be active if you were feeling the pain will become active as well. And some people feel this so much that they actually
do feel and report the pain. Same with anger, same with any emotion, same even with quite
complicated intellectual things, like judgments,
moral judgments, and so on. Now, this is the new information
which has really only come out this year. Some researchers from
Emory University in the States decided to see if they could actually see
inside the brain what was going on. We know already from the earlier work that people become at least temporarily
more sensitive to other people’s feelings once they’ve read a book
or been reading some fiction. And this researchers set out to see if this was something
that could actually be seen inside of the brain, physically. So they had students, lots and lots, I think it was
quite a large sample, reading a passage of a particularly
engaging and exciting novel with a lot of inside-character
driven stuff. It was actually ‘Pompeii’,
by Robert Harris, if you want to do
the same thing yourself. And they had the people read just 30 pages
a night for five nights in a row. And they took brain scans before
the people started doing this exercise to get a baseline of what their brains looked like before. Then they had them read, and every night after
they had read a passage, they came in next morning
and they had their brain scanned again. And every day there were differences. The differences, this is a sort of schematic picture
of where the differences where found, the connections, which as the week went on
and they read a passage each night, they got thicker and denser. And they are, as you see,
all over the brain, not just in the language areas, everywhere. Basically, what these people
seemed to be doing was giving themselves
a really good workout. In fact, the brain scans looked
more or less what you’d expect to find if this people had lived the events
that they had been reading about. They had actually lived an experience, and it had become part
of the architecture of their brain. So in conclusion, I’m really giving the same message,
I think, as Delia, the speaker before, which is that your brain needs
a workout as much as your body. And reading fiction seems to be
one of the best workouts you can get. And not only is it good for you,
but it’s also good for society as a whole because the brain is like a muscle: the more you force yourself through books
to take other people’s perspectives, to sympathize, to empathize
with other people, the more empathetic
a society we will have. Thank you. (Applause)


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    Sean Kim

    I don’t want to be sensitive toward other people’s feeling cuz that makes me vulnerable to negative influences coming from them. I will stick with more practical non fiction books

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    Amy Peters

    Okay, no spoiler alert warning for Wuthering Heights? –I read a book called Proust and the Squid by Maryanne Wolf, and I recommend it if anyone watching finds this topic fascinating and you want to geek out on it a bit more.

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    Sam Rose

    I used to read a lot more than I do now. But I have become distracted by my mobile phone a lot more these days and waste so much time on useless information. Time to pick up a book again

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    Alexander M.


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    I wish my teacher had given me an answer like this when i asked why reading fiction isn't pointless.
    What i collect from this is that it's important because it's an unnatural thing for the brain to do therefore it has to work harder which results in overall brain development as the brain adapts to this foreign exercise.

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    I don't think that reading if really useful as they are talking about.. it's useful only to improve vocabulary and just sometimes, improve personality. Secrets are not in books that are shared with everyone.

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    Billy Reed Music

    Wow. I feel better about reading fiction again. I had come to believe it was unproductive, except for feeding the imagination and priming the mind for writing. This is great. I'm so glad she gave this talk. I'm going to read more fiction again, and feel great about it!!!! 😄📚

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