‘I can’t imagine being me without having read all that I’ve read’

Mirroring and comparing one’s real life, and its belief systems, experiences and influences, with imagined worlds, gives us identity. While the neurological impact on the brain is tricky to measure, Patricia Clarke explores the idea that literature in all its forms – except e-books – allows us to ‘face the nuance of human experience’

Writer Dan Hurley wasn’t a child whose parents read to him every night. In his early years, he wasn’t glued to books or frequently visiting the library. In fact, he struggled with literacy. Learning to read in third grade [at eight years old] was a slightly shameful experience, it made him feel like he wasn’t smart enough, he tells me over the phone. “The teacher was hunched over me in the classroom,” he says. “I remember reading out ‘tu-hee’, and she told me I was wrong; rather ‘tu-hee’ was ‘the’.”  

A year later, it was a friend’s obsession with Marvel that influenced a sea change. ‘I’m going to lose my best friend if I don’t start reading comic books!’” a young Hurley thought, quickly developing a fascination for a genre prone to celebrate a raft of heroic yet misunderstood protagonists, the likes of Spiderman and Fantastic Four. “By sixth grade,” he says, “I was a straight-A student, and reading all the time. I went from being in the slow learning group at school, to thinking I was some sort of bright person.”

Hurley’s background – somewhat late to books and perhaps slightly more influenced at an early age by pictures – the graphic novel – could suggest that children do not necessarily need to read in order to later achieve a career as a New York Times-published science journalist, and prolific writer. But Hurley disagrees. “Marvel comic books were unusual at that time because the writer Stan Lee would use a lot of big words. He had a huge vocabulary, while other comics were intentionally kept as simple as possible,” he says. “That definitely did something.”

So while literature, in whatever form, or at the very least the magic of storytelling, influenced Hurley’s life for the better, did reading actually stimulate a change in the brain’s chemistry that is responsible for his career as an author?  

As over 84 per cent of the global population is literate and processes some form of text on a daily basis, it is difficult to pin down the neurological influence of reading by testing the average person, and for scientists to perform a controlled study on the effects of sustained reading – this could take a lifetime. However, the idea that reading rewires our brains in profound and mysterious ways is a common public opinion. A most modern headline, for example, is that of children surgically attached to their tablets and androids, attention span and imaginations compromised and even lost, when they might be enhanced and flower if nurtured by a good book. But is this measurable?

Dan Hurley, award-winning science journalist and author of Smarter: The New Science of Building Brain Power

“In short, yes,” says the scientist and writer Baroness Susan Greenfield CBE, who specialises in the physiology of the brain. "But anything you do will change the wiring of your brain.” The brain is ‘plastic’, meaning that it adapts to its environment, and is malleable to whatever happens. Although several hours of reading, she says, will change our neurological make up, and any similarly immersive activity would do the same, books exclusively influence our train of thought and processing.  

“A book has a beginning, a middle and an end,” she says. "I know that sounds obvious, but there’s a very clear, linear sequence.” Unlike feelings, which are not governed by an order or time window, thinking has a particular sequence. In other words, reading enforces a thought process that "slows down the brain in a good way”. This means readers are more adept at processing information, and are forced to engage in imagined worlds and slow down thinking in an increasingly fast-paced world. Baroness Greenfield also suggests, that reading has near-existential benefits. 

Stories echo “our own fundamental precepts of space and time”, she says. When processing someone else’s story, readers subconsciously and consciously learn how to process their own thoughts, and therefore their own lives. “Our lives are linear,” she says. “Our present is informed by our past and our future. This, in turn, is echoed in our life stories, which we share in books.”

Hurley agrees that mirroring and comparing one’s real life, and its belief systems, experiences and influences with imagined worlds, is crucial to developing a sense of self. “I can’t imagine being me without having read all that I’ve read,” says Hurley.

Both authors agree that books allows us to face “the nuance of human experience”, therefore providing a way for us to disconnect from, and better understand our own thoughts and place in the world. Baroness Greenfield gives the example of Jane Austen’s novels, mostly first-person tales of anti-heroines in the 18th Century, which she jokes “wouldn’t really work as a video game”. Rather, it is through literature that “you have a vicarious way of seeing how different people in different cultures and eras see the world”, she says. The psychologist Raymond Mar backs up this idea of heightened empathy and identification after analysis of 86 fMRI studies found a substantial overlap in the brain networks used to understand stories and the networks used to navigate interactions with other individuals.

Insidiously, this profound, sequential thought process that we rely on to understand our lives and others “is being challenged and disrupted”, by the digital world, says Baroness Greenfield. Nowadays, switching from screen to screen and multiple activities means people are less likely to have a sustained attention span – no sense of a beginning, middle and end.

The benefits of reading may actually be lost with e-books or kindles, says Hurley. “With online reading you can’t let yourself get lost in what you’re doing in a deep way”. Baroness Greenfield agrees. “When you have words on a printed page you’re turning the pages, you’re touching them. You can go at your own pace. There’s a sense of permanence, none of which is the case with screen-based reading.”

Through literature, you have a vicarious way of seeing how different people in different cultures and eras see the world

Baroness Susan Greenfield CBE, scientist, writer, broadcaster and author of Mind Change

Thankfully, according to the UAE Reading Habits Survey, 72 per cent read printed books, despite a move to digitisation, with nearly 50 per cent of readers spending between Dh400-1,000 on physical books annually, and 81 per cent purchasing books online.

The most recommended children’s books in the study were global bestsellers, the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling, and the much-loved fantastical Roald Dahl anthology. These are the kind of vivid classics that have the power to resonate with any child, in any era, says Hurley. While over 51 per cent of parents in the UAE feel their children read enough, there is never a limit or a rule for how you access stories, he says, indicating that it is neither written books or graphic, pictorial novels that influence human development, but the power of both spoken and written narrative and all its colourful characters and themes that change our thinking in unpredictable ways.

“My daughter happens to be one of those kids who will sit on her phone all day – we have to pull it away from her,” he says. “But we started reading her Harry Potter when she was very young, and now she demands that I read to her every night, even though she’s nine. I know reading is going to be part of her life.

“Beyond any doubt, reading is a major part of education. It’s not just about making people smarter.” A literary education is at the very core of our being. The man who disliked literature as a young boy repeats again, “I can’t imagine being me without having read all that I’ve read.”