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Self Study and Brain Health: Reading is Good for Your Brain!

By Ninazolotow @Yoga4HealthyAge
by Ram

Self Study and Brain Health: Reading is Good for Your Brain!

Woman with Book by Pablo Picasso

Svadhyaya is one of the five niyamas described in the Yoga Sutras and translates as: 


Adhyaya= reading, chapter, self-study, education, knowledge and wisdom 
I interpret svadhyaya as education of the self, introspection and self-realization (see The Power of Svadhyaya (Self-Study), Part 1). One of the ways by which you educate your “self” is through self-study or reading. According to the Yoga Sutras, reading brings about clarity in the mind and paves the way for deeper mind-body awareness. Reading creates curiosity leading to introspection and contemplation of one’s own life and motives. By turning a witness to our own self, we begin to recognize our own sensations, thoughts, emotions and feelings. Thus, through the process of self-study and reading, we empower ourselves. Reading also enables focus (dharana) and attention (dhyana), which in turn stimulate neural signals so as to interpret the words and language. 
Research indicate that several regions of the brain that are involved in memory, reflection, decision making, planning, and emotional control have neural stem cells that can mature into functioning neural cells if these areas are exposed to a learning/stimulating environment. The brain actively grows and rewires itself in response to stimulation and learning. Several studies report that our brain grows stronger from use and from being challenged in the same way that muscles grow stronger from exercise. The term "neuroplasticity" refers to the brain's capacity to rewire itself through reading and learning. When we learn new things, our brain puts out new neural branches that form new connections among existing neurons. The brain is constantly changing, morphing, and rewiring itself in response to experience and learning. Research studies also find that mental exercises, including reading and doing puzzles, delays the onset of Alzheimer’s disease, cancer, and other stress-associated disorders. 
In one of my earlier posts I discussed a remarkable study in which a group of neuroscientists reported that reading has a significant physical effect on a reader’s brain that is long-lasting. In this particular study, which lasted for 19 days, students were subjected to functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) of their brains before and throughout the reading process. After completing a novel, the subjects underwent the fMRI examination for another five days. The researchers noted a significant impact on brain connectivity in the left temporal cortex of the brain, which is responsible for processing sensation, emotion, visual memory, and meaning. Additionally, firing of neurons was also observed in the central sulcus, which is associated with sensations and movement. What this meant was that the readers of fiction had put themselves in the protagonist’s shoes. It was as though they were acting out the central character’s role. Furthermore, the neural changes were not just immediate reactions as the changes in the subjects’ brains lasted even after they had finished the novel, suggesting that a daily dose of reading could certainly have a bigger and longer-lasting effect on structure and function of the brain. 
A recent study Learning to read alters cortico-subcortical cross-talk in the visual system of illiterates published last month got me even more excited. This study confirmed the neuroplastic response of the brain by showing that reading triggers rewiring of the neural connections even in the adult brain and in regions that are normally not associated with reading and writing. The study conducted by a team of researchers from Germany, India, and the Netherlands involved 30 illiterate people (did not know to read, spell, or write and never attended school) with an average age of 31. Twenty one were taught to read and write the Devanagari script, which is the basis of the Hindi and other Indian languages, for a period of six months. A control group of nine people were not taught anything. Subjects were assessed for actual letter knowledge and word-reading skills and also underwent MRI scanning before and after the six-month period. By the end of the study, the team saw significant changes in the brains of the people who had learned to read and write. These individuals showed an increase in brain activity in the learning centers of the brain. 
What was more fascinating was that MRI examination showed changes in neural architecture in the thalamus and the brainstem, which are not involved in reading, writing or learning. These two regions are known to coordinate somatosensory information, including movement. Furthermore, literacy-induced neuroplasticity increased the functional activity in the occipital lobe, which is involved in vision. Those subjects who showed remarkable progress in their reading and writing skills displayed significant and long-lasting beneficial changes in the learning areas of the brain. However, this does not mean that the benefits of reading apply to only illiterate folks. All the studies on brain plasticity suggest that reading can be a beneficial activity for anyone and for all ages as it helps an individual to experience the world in a new way by rewiring and strengthening the neural networks. Mental exercises, including reading and learning, help any individual to experience the world in a new way by rewiring and strengthening the neural networks. And the concept of “use it or lose it” applies to not just the muscles but also to the neural pathways and connections in the brains as well. 
Thus, it makes sense why Patanjali declared in his Yoga Sutras: 
“svadhyayat ishta devata samprayogah” 
From self-study and reflection on words (svadhyaya) one attains contact or communion with that underlying natural reality or force. 
Brain research shows that Patanjali’s declaration is not a tall claim but the truth. So, after your routine yoga, meditation, and pranayama practice, pick up a good book and experience the numerous mental and physical benefits that come from reading. 
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