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).
ALEXANDRA CANFOR-DUMAS says
Thanks for this great post. I agree with it all – especially the part about reading history and novels in order to escape. As well as this, I’ve found myself watching endless re-runs of Poirot and Miss Marple on ITV3 catch-up. It’s great to escape to a gentler time in the 20th century (the 1930s and 1950s) and have the comfort of knowing the crimes will be solved in the end, and all will be well.
Also, I just wanted to flag up something to do with your comments on Vitamin D. I totally agree that it is very necessary for most people who live in the northern hemisphere to supplement their diets with this important vitamin. However, I really do feel that you should mention to your readers taking Vitamin D is much more effective if taken with vitamin K2.
Vitamin D and K2 work with one another to maintain tight control over calcium levels in the body. Vitamin D controls the absorption of calcium into the blood. Vitamin K2 controls where that calcium ends up. Over-supplementation of vitamin D3 without ample vitamin K2, leads to problems of excess calcium.
I am sure that you are already aware of this, but it would be helpful to alert people to this fact – otherwise they are not doing the optimum best for their health, and also wasting their money into the bargain.
Many thanks, and stay safe.
Annabel Streets says
Yes, you’re right about Vitamin K and I have a half-written post on the subject. I will try and finish it… Thanks for the nudge! And yes, gentler times certainly beckon as we grapple with making sense of this current moment.
What a profound and most informative post this is. Many thanks Annabel for your research and writing.
So dark chocolate and pistachios okay. Good to know.
I have just completed Girl, Woman, Other by Bernadine Evaristo who was the joint winner of the 2019 Booker prize. A good read which certainly helps develop empathy for those whose life circumstances as immigrants in Britain difer so much from my mainstream life.
I am following this with Andrea Levy’s Small Island. I read this when it first appeared and saw the National Theatre production based on the novel in a cinema last year. I am also reading a biography of Peggy Guggenheim again and looking at the catalogue from her Venice gallery in the wake of a BBC 4 Documentary entitled Peggy Guggenheim Art Addict. All about her life as a patron and champion of modern artists.
Talking books sound a very good distracting idea right now. I’m following several culture podcasts : the art newsletter, an FT one etc.
Annabel Streets says
Ah, I saw that film about Peggy, then read her autobiography, Out of this World. A fascinating woman, and her house is worth a visit – if you ever get to Venice! It’s the same as her gallery, I think… And podcasts are a great suggestion too. Thanks!
Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror and the Light is keeping me occupied.
Susan Saunders says
Me too! I’ve still got a long way to go though! Susan x
Jacqui Gauld says
Pleased to read that list of resveratrol containing foods, peanuts being the only one I never eat, I’m not allergic, I just think they taste vile. Pistachios on the other hand, food of the gods!
I am one of those “will read anything in a pinch” people. Since stopping work two years ago, I’ve been going through the many thousands of books that I’ve acquired over the years (charity shop junkie, plus happy to take whatever books chums, etc were getting rid of), a lot have been returned to charity shops, others have been given away to anyone who expressed an interest in a particular writer or subject (four bags recently went to someone who had appealed on Fc’bk, as she is shielding, and had read everything she had).
Overall, though, it’s going very slowly, as I’m re-reading so many of them. Lots of them had just been piled into boxes, all the (numerous) bookcases in the house being already overflowing. Tbh, there’s been literally hundreds that I don’t even remember buying, it was so long ago.
I’m keeping a lot of them, some because of the writer, others the subject or genre.
I’ve just started Memoirs of a Highland Lady, Elizabeth Grant of Rothiemurchus. The book before that was a bit different, Something Wicked, a 1999 collection of New Scottish Crime Fiction. It was fascinating to realise how many of the contributing writers have become very widely known/read, especially if you’re “into” modern Scottish writing. And before that was, The Girl With Seven Names, a North Korean Defector’s Story (prompted by the latest headlines about Kim Jong-un).
I’ve tried both audio books and a Kindle, but much prefer holding an actual book.
Annabel Streets says
Yes, nothing beats an actual book – I agree! But audio is invaluable for interesting company when cleaning or folding laundry! Love the sound of your other suggestions. Thanks so much for sharing.
Bill Schwed says
A very interesting update. Books: I have just finished, Lifespan – Why we age – and Why we don’t have to, by David Sinclair, Phd, a noted Harvard Medical School scientist. A fascinating book with Sci-Fi type possibilities (so it seams) He talks about Resveratrol, sirtuins and such as they are very important to his research. He himself takes 1gram of resveratrol daily (read the book to learn more). Wondering how this squares with the information by Bayele not to take too much resveratrol?
Anyway I have also just finish, The House of Yan, an easy but somewhat spell binding read about a Chinese family that was involved with the beginning of modern China, with Sun Yat-sen and through Mao, Deng Xiaoping to the present. There are many mentions of events in China history that I had to look up; so that adds to the fun. I could not put the book down and missed running on Monday due to the interest in the book.
Before that I read Hilary Mantel’s, The Mirror and the Light, a great ending to her trilogy. The writing almost eclipsed the story, and there was the weight of how this would end in the back of your mind.
I will take your mention of talking books and add to the lavender and silk sleep shades from the last update to heart/Thank you
Annabel Streets says
Yes, I read Sinclair’s book last summer (I got an advance copy) and found it fascinating. I wonder if Bayele was referring to the wine rather than the Resveratrol… not clear. I’m about to start The Mirror and the Light. Great recommendations – thanks!
HILARY DEFRIEZ says
Excellent and encouraging post, thank you.
2 reading suggestions, both sort-of crime/detection series, the context of each based on very solid historical and geographic research.
C.J. Sansom’s Sheldrake is a hunch-backed lawyer in the time of Henry VIII.
Jason Goodwin’s Yashim is a white eunuch in C19 Istanbul.
Geroge Mackay Brown’s poetry is beautiful, moving, evocative of the Orkneys, and sensitive to the daily hardships of fishermen and the particular quality of island life.
Annabel Streets says
Wonderful recommendations – I love George Mackay Brown too, he makes us see the beauty in the little everyday things, helping us to stop wishing we could travel and open our eyes to wherever we are!
Confined to barracks for the time being, I find myself enjoying travel books. Patrick Leigh Fermor’s A Time of Gifts is the first of the trilogy which tells of his trek across Europe to Constantinople as an 18 year old in the 1930s. It’s particularly enjoyable when he describes places I’m familiar with. Books on the natural world appeal too: I’d recommend Robert Macfarlane’s The Old Ways and Mountains of the Mind, or try Rob Cowan’s immersive description of his obsession with the countryside around him when he moves to Yorkshire.
Love these blog posts and buy copies of your brilliant Age Well Project book for friends. Thank you!
Annabel Streets says
I love that trilogy… all that carefree travelling. It feels a world away now. And I also love Macfarlane’s writing – although Underland (his latest) made me feel very claustrophobic. Not sure I’d read that one in lockdown! Lovely recommendations – thanks!
Patricia Sherwin says
We are fortunate to be still in New Zealand, 3 return flights cancelled. Lots of reading, plenty of sunshine( Vitamin D) and 2 or 3 small glasses of red wine each week. We are in our late 70’s and have not felt as fit and well for years ( walked 13k yesterday)
Annabel Streets says
Oh lucky you, and how impressive your walking is! Thanks for the comment…
Diana Studer says
Reading Wharton’s The Age of Innocence – which belonged to a grandmother I never met (my father was from New Zealand) I usually read quickly, but this one I am lingering over. Thinking of my grandmother reading, wondering why THIS one book survives on my shelves. When the book says the sixties, it is … 1860.
For reading foreign languages, I have 2 German blogs. That gives me bite sized chunks, in contemporary language.
Annabel Streets says
Ah, blogs in another language makes perfect sense – what a good idea. Thanks for sharing. I love Edith Wharton – a brilliant writer.
I Cowper says
Another brilliant and informative article thank you guys.
We’ve been walking and enjoying the sunshine regularly and indulging in going through some brilliant old vinyl albums that had belonged to parents and had been languishing in the loft. It’s incredible how some ‘feel good happy music’ can cheer things up, everything from Count Basie to James Last, happy music from kinder times.
Some time ago you mentioned having an article in the works about air cleaning plants in the household and we wonder if that’s still something you intend to discuss at some stage? Having got used to this lovely clean fresh air, devoid of the usual mass aircraft and traffic pollution, it would be interesting to learn of anything that can help even in a small way, when the inevitable pollution returns.
Thanks again for your excellent blog and book. Stay safe everyone.
Annabel Streets says
What a lovely way to spend lockdown – it certainly has some benefits for those of us lucky enough to have stayed well. Yes, house plants and their many redeeming features was half-written, then a study came out saying they had no physiological benefits. I’m waiting to see if something more positive pops up. In the meantime, my house plants make me feel happy – and that must be worth something! Thanks for the comment and kind words!