I’ve been reading a lot during the lockdown. Not newspapers, but books. Sometimes with a glass of red wine (more on which later). Reading is an excellent way of immersing oneself in a world of one’s choice. But reading also changes the very structure of our brain, enabling us to make sense of the world around us, to feel less socially distant, to access old memories and new emotions, and to build new neurons.
A six-month programme from Carnegie Mellon in the US found that regular readers had a greater volume of white matter – the cables that connect brain cells. A diminishing of white matter has been implicated in Alzheimer’s. Read more about white matter here.
Studies using brains scans suggest that when we read about an experience, our brains light up exactly as if we were having the experience directly. When we read about food, for example, our sensory cortex lights up. When we read about action, our motor cortex lights up. In other words, reading provides an extraordinarily vivid simulation of reality. This can help us explore and comprehend experiences from the emotional and physical safety of our sofa.
For those wanting to understand pandemics, reading Camus’s The Plague (which sold out on Amazon within days of lockdown) is perhaps a much better way of engaging with the challenges of living through a pandemic than watching a bewildering and alarming array of daily news.
Interestingly, during World War Two, historical fiction/non-fiction and classic novels were the preferred reads. In difficult times we take comfort from the endless roll of history, from knowing that the world has survived bleaker times than our current pandemic. I’ve found it both soothing and fascinating to read about occupied France: the rationing, the fear, the boredom, the inner struggle for courage, the heightened sense of mortality. It all feels hugely relevant to today, but the 80-years of distance helps me put COVID-19 into perspective.
Deep reading also helps us feel empathy and compassion by sweeping us under the skin of other people. At times of crisis and change, we need to maintain our sense of empathy, to remain aware of what others might be experiencing. This is particularly important when we’re in lockdown and unable to engage with the usual number and range of people.
Researchers at Stanford University found that while all types of reading benefit the brain, close literary readings exercise multiple cognitive regions. If you want to work your brain ditch the airport novel and choose something more challenging. Read it slowly and think about it. Better still, discuss it or write about it. A friend of mine is deep into The White Goddess by Robert Graves, which she describes as ‘dense but brilliant’… she keeps herself fortified with strong green tea. Another friend has found herself suddenly drawn to the biographies of historical outsiders at times of great change. ‘I wanted to know how others have coped with living through turbulent times,’ she explained, adding ‘I’m not frightened of dying now.’
I’ve always been captivated by how change affects people. My own novels explore this through the lives of two real families, one that lived in jazz-age Paris, and one that lived in Nottingham, Munich and Italy on the brink of the first world war. In hindsight, years of researching and writing helped me feel more sanguine about the potential changes now posed by COVID-19. Crucially, they’ve helped me feel hopeful that we can and will survive.
Stories, with their beginning, middle and end, also help us think sequentially, to link cause and effect. Neuroscientists speculate that the more we read, the better equipped we are to think logically and come to rational conclusions. At a time that often seems increasingly irrational, the ability to think clearly and sequentially seems more important than ever.
The biggest cognitive workout comes from reading in a foreign language, according to researchers at Sweden’s Lund University. A three-month study involving regular brain scans found the greatest hippocampal growth in the brains of those reading novels in foreign languages. This doesn’t have to be War and Peace in Russian. I’ve had a challenging workout from a French novel aimed at 12-year olds!
Meanwhile, a medical friend has turned to poetry, saying she needs snatches of hope and solace that can stay with her throughout her hectic days. You can sign up to receive a free daily poem from the Poetry Foundation here.
Audiobooks may not provide quite the same cognitive challenge, but they still offer escapism and companionship as well as the chance to develop empathy and sequential thinking. I listen while I’m cleaning, cooking and lying awake at night. Nothing returns me to sleep more quickly than being read to.
As for the glass of red wine, a report last week found that a compound called resveratrol appears to replicate the benefits of oestrogen. We typically think of oestrogen as something to do with reproduction, but it also protects both men and women against several diseases of ageing including osteoporosis, Alzheimer’s and Type 2 diabetes.
The study’s author, Dr Henry Bayele, suggests that small amounts of resveratrol — found in peanuts, pistachios, grape skins, red wine, blueberries, raspberries, cocoa and dark chocolate — may help us age well by activating oestrogen receptors. These, in turn, switch on proteins called sirtuins, vital for healthy ageing because of their role in repairing DNA and regulating our metabolism.
According to Bayele,’Regular low doses of resveratrol… may provide the benefits of oestrogen. This would apply to both men and women of all ages, but postmenopausal women may feel these benefits the most because they have lower oestrogen reserves than men of a similar age.’
He’s keen to stress that too much resveratrol – which he says is anything more than one glass of red wine – is damaging, and that his study was done in a petri dish not in the human body. More tests needed!
Finally, on the matter of COVID, I wrote in my last post about the need to keep taking vitamin D to maintain strong immunity. A small study of serum levels of Vitamin D in COVID patients suggests that those with higher concentrations of Vit D in their blood appear to have milder versions of COVID-19. You can read the initial findings here. I suspect I had COVID a couple of weeks ago (not tested so not proven) and it was certainly very mild. I’ve been taking a daily 2200 iu of Vit D all winter. I normally stop in the summer and try to get 20 minutes of sun every day, but this year I’ll be continuing a supplement throughout.
So. Take a generous Vitamin D supplement, then grab a book, a small glass of red wine or a bowl of berries, and get reading. Or read to someone else – skype and Zoom are perfect for this. If you’re alone but wanting company, try a silent reading group as written about recently here (courtesy of The Observer.) Got any book recommendations? Share your reading experiences in the comment box. We’d love to hear what you’re reading …
Currently reading: The Plague by Albert Camus (paperback), Insomnia by Marina Benjamin (kindle); Parisian Lives by Deirdre Bair (audio).