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Svadhyaya, Reading, and Brain Strength

By Ninazolotow @Yoga4HealthyAge
by Ram

Svadhyaya, Reading, and Brain Strength

Woman Reading by Pablo Picasso

In the Sadhana Pada of the Yoga Sutras by Patanjali we are introduced to the eight rungs/limbs/steps of Yoga, whose practice helps us to develop attention as a tool to discriminate between ignorance and awareness, and truth from illusion, which is the means for liberation or enlightenment. The niyamas constitute the second of the eight rungs or limbs and are “to do” practices, which serve as personal observances/practices of self-training. There are five niyamas, which I have already described in my previous post The Second Branch of Yoga: The Niyamas.
Svadhyaya is one of the five niyamas and translates as: Sva=Self; Adhyaya=reading, chapter, self-study, education, knowledge, wisdom. I interpret svadhyaya as education of the self, introspection, and self-realization. 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 of the mind and paves the way for deeper mind-body awareness. A clear mind is not affected by stress and a clear mind produces a healthy body, thus creating a greater connection with one's own pure, essential nature. Reading helps us to introspect and contemplate life’s lessons. Introspecting about our emotions, thoughts, actions, and reactions helps us to recognize our true nature. By turning a witness to our own self, we begin to notice what’s happening within us—our sensations, thoughts, emotions and feelings. So through the process of self-study and reading we empower ourselves. 

Being a neuroscientist, I was naturally curious as to what exactly happens to the structure and function of the brain when an individual is deeply immersed in a book. To understand this better, let us familiarize ourselves with few areas of the brain: Left Temporal Cortex. The temporal lobe is one of the four major lobes of the mammalian brain and is part of the cerebral cortex located on the lower side of each cerebral hemisphere. The temporal lobe is located beneath the lateral fissure on both hemispheres of the mammalian brain. It is associated with a plethora of functions, including auditory perception, long-term memory, and emotional responses. The hippocampi, which are involved in consolidating memory and recall, are located in the temporal lobe. Central Sulcus. This is the region of fold of the brain that separates the frontal lobe from the parietal lobe, and divides the sensory and motor areas of the brain. Thus, one of the primary functions of this area is to convert sensory inputs into physical sensations. Broca’s Areas. This is the region of the brain that is involved in the control of speech, and is located in the frontal part of the left hemisphere of the brain. Its main function is linked to speech and language production. Injury to this area impairs the ability to speak together with a deficit in language production.
Wernicke’s Areas. Also called Wernicke's speech area, this is another area of the cerebral cortex that is linked to speech. In particular, Wernicke’s area is involved in the production of written and spoken language. Damage caused to Wernicke's area will result in the individual fluently connecting words but that lack meaning. 
Reading requires focus (dharana) and attention (dhyana). When you read mindfully without any distraction, several areas of the brain undergo transformation. The Broca’s and Wernicke’s areas are constantly firing signals to interpret the words and language. Additionally, other areas of the brain may get involved. For example, if you are reading a text that has odor words, such as coffee, rosemary, or lavender, the word automatically evokes that specific odor. So not only are the word processing areas stimulated, but so are the areas of the brain responsible for the smell sensation. In a landmark study published in the journal NeuroImage Reading cinnamon activates olfactory brain regions, participants were tested on words that had strong odor associations or that were neutral (words that had very weak or nil odor association). As they kept reading, the researchers scanned their brains with a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) machine. When subjects encountered words like “perfume, garlic, or jasmine,” the olfactory areas of their brain brightly lit up. However, none of the brain areas lit up when subjects encountered neutral or odorless words like “chair” or “key,” suggesting a close neural network connection between the language areas and olfaction centers of the brain. Similarly, another team of researchers showed a link between reading and empathy. Individuals who frequently read fiction seem to understand other people better and empathize with them. The authors concluded that reading fiction triggers neuronal associations between the language centers and the insular cortex region (a portion of the cerebral cortex folded deep within the central sulcus area) that help the reader better understand human sentiments, values, and emotions. Reading fiction stimulates a myriad of neuronal network connections because it requires the reader to contemplate cause and effect. In the process it reinforces and strengthens those areas of the brain. In a recent study Short- and Long-Term Effects of a Novel on Connectivity in the Brain, a group of neuroscientists at Emory University in Atlanta reported that reading has a significant physical effect on a reader’s brain that is long lasting. The researchers carried out a 19-day study on students who were asked to read a book. Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) was carried out on the students’ brains before and throughout the reading process. After completing the book, 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 readers of the fiction 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 lasted in the subjects’ brains 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. Now we realize why Patanjali declared in the Yoga Sutras:
2.4 svadhyayat ishta devata samprayogah 
From self-study and reflection on sacred words (svadhyaya), one attains contact, communion, or concert with that underlying natural reality or force —trans. by Swami  Jnaneshvara 
Brain research shows that Patanjali’s declaration is not a tall claim but the truth. So why wait? If you wish to see long lasting and favorable improvements in your brain structure and function, following your routine yoga, meditation, and pranayama, pick up a good book and experience the numerous benefits that come from reading. 
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