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How reading can change your brain

Let’s face it – reading is weird.

Somebody, somewhere, at some point in time, has an idea, story or information that they want to communicate. So they take the nebulous ideas inside their brain, translate their meaning into words, then scrawl symbols and spaces onto paper or a screen in the hope their idea will somehow be captured in those symbols. And it is.

Then, a reader on the other side of the world, who the writer has never met, possibly a hundred years in the future, picks up that paper, looks at the symbols and spaces, hears words in their brain and translates those words into meanings and concepts that pretty closely match those of the writer’s.

The whole process is MAGIC.

And yet, reading remains one of the most underrated and underappreciated skills. So many people, myself included, take the intricacies of this most complex of neurological tasks for granted. But did you know that the very act of learning to read can change the way your brain functions forever?

When we learn to read as infants, our first attempts at reading are usually locking in whole words that are familiar to us – TESCO, Car Park, Hill Road. We don’t know what any of the letters mean, we are essentially learning a shape and giving it a name, and we can store about 20 words this way.

It is only when we move on to learning how to read alphabetically that suddenly a whole written language becomes available for our hungry brains, as we learn how to decode symbols (letters and words) into word sounds, and chunks of meaning. This can be tricky for some, downright impossible for others, and many give up. But it seems, with the right support, there is hope, because through reading something incredible happens.

In a 2009 study at Carnegie Mellon University (Keller, T; Just, M – see a summary here), it was discovered that in learning to read our brains produce more white matter, greatly improving the way communication signals travel through the brain to grey matter, which is responsible for processing and storing information. Even with children who were very poor readers or had reading differences and disabilities, 100 hours of remedial coaching could not only help them read better and with greater ease, but their brains had permanently altered to improve cognitive performance. Demonstrating that with the right help and support, learning to read can give you a more efficient brain.

A more recent study by Michael Skeide (et al.) at the Max Planck Institute in Leipzig (read about it here), discovered that this rewiring of the brain through reading is not something that exclusively happens in children. In a group of illiterate adults, learning to read and write significantly altered their brain architecture within months, even in areas of the brain not typically associated with reading and writing. And, even better, earlier this year a study by Dr Fatma Deniz at the University of California in Berkeley (Telegraph article summarising this here) showed that the brain function required to either listen to an audiobook or read a physical book were practically identical – opening up brand new opportunities for providing audiobooks for children with dyslexia in schools, for example.

Not only does learning to read change your brain, but continuing to read can provide all sorts of benefits, including entertainment, education, relaxation, and escape. There is even a brain state called the ‘Fictive Dream’ – which is the feeling you get when you’re so involved in a book that you forget about the real world, existing purely in the one on the page – and it’s a state that for some can be as restorative as meditation.

So next time you feel you have to push reading to the back seat of your life, or worry that reading is taking you away from more important things, be reassured that reading can do – and will continue to do – good things for your brain.

A great reason to prioritise reading all year round, not just during the OcTBR Challenge!


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