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Reading gives brain a workout

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Annabeth Leow on 06 Jun 2017

The Straits Times

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It also improves your empathy and transports you into unfamiliar experiences

 

Fancy a workout that improves empathy, prepares you for new situations and boosts your brain function?

 

A quick and easy way to start is by picking up a book. Associate Professor Leher Singh from the National University of Singapore's psychology department said: "Reading is an excellent way to build an understanding of the world and how it works and to form expectations of people, places and things."

 

In psychology, this is called a schema - a way of organising the world inside your head, according to the patterns you have learnt in your everyday life.

 

Reading could actually transport you into an unfamiliar experience.

 

Associate Professor Annabel Chen, deputy director of Nanyang Technological University's Centre for Research and Development in Learning, pointed to recent neuroscience discoveries about how the brain responds to reading.

 

Researchers have found that reading novels brought up activity not only in the parts of the brain previously associated with story comprehension and language recep- tivity, but in the somatosensory cortex and motor regions as well.

 

"It is likely that the novel transported the reader into the body of the protagonist, thus tricking the mind into thinking it is doing something it is not, a phenomenon also known as embodied cognition," said Prof Chen, who is a clinical neuropsychologist by training.

 

"A good example of embodied cognition is visualisation in sports, like thinking about playing tennis can activate neurons associated with the physical act of serving or hitting the ball. Thus, the increased connectivity in these regions suggests the ability to put ourselves in someone else's shoes."

 

Dr Tan Wah Pheow, manager of Temasek Polytechnic's Centre for Applied Psychology, said the act of reading is "akin to exercising your whole brain".

 

Prof Chen explained the idea of the whole-brain workout: "Reading requires many higher-order cognitive functions, such as visual imagery, working memory and concentration to keep track of the plot and imagination of the scenarios described."

 

SERIOUS OR LIGHT TOPICS?

 

But even those with a reading habit may wonder: Does it matter how often you read or whether you are curled up with Harry Potter or War And Peace?

 

Prof Chen said: "The type of material one reads really depends on the goal of reading the material and the person's level of suggestibility."

 

She added: "Fiction can help activate different brain regions involved with imagery. It allows a short escape from daily hassles for psychological well-being."

 

Dr Tan said: "Maybe the question should be how engaged people should be when they are reading. Highly engaged people are said to be engaging in deep processing, where they read for meaning and context, and critique what they have read."

 

He added: "More engaged reading leads to better understanding and learning. It also results in a higher level of brain activation."

 

While fiction promotes empathy on the part of the reader, Dr Tan said that educators recommend children to read non-fiction.

 

This is because non-fiction promotes learning across different subjects and teaches children different ways to approach a text - such as through inquiry-based thinking.

 

Psychologist Frances Yeo from Thomson Paediatric Centre said that reading across different genres exposes learners to a variety of writing styles.

 

"The student should receive direct instruction on how to analyse written text and learn how to write for different audiences," she said. "I feel that many students lack this."

 

But there is still a long way to go if Singaporeans are to reap the full brain benefits of reading.

 

The National Library Board's 2016 National Reading Habits Study on Adults found that about 69 per cent of respondents had read at least one book in the past 12 months. The National Arts Council's 2015 National Literary Reading and Writing Survey saw fewer than half of the respondents reading at least one "literary book" between March 2014 and March 2015.

 

Ms Sujatha Nair, assistant director of the Ministry of Education- aided Dyslexia Association of Singapore Literacy Programme, said: "Whether you have the reading ability of a pre-emergent or an expert, you should always aim to read as much as possible. This is especially important for struggling readers who tend to be reluctant readers."

 

She recommended starting with a daily target of half an hour and building it up to one to two hours a day dedicated to reading.

 

Temasek Polytechnic's Dr Tan said: "I advocate the reading of works that are engaging and which invoke deep processing, regardless of whether they are fictional or not."

 

69%

 

Respondents who had read  at least one book in the past  12 months, according to the National Library Board's 2016 National Reading Habits Study on Adults.

 

Source: The Straits Times © Singapore Press Holdings Limited. Reproduced with permission.