The Power of Deep Reading
Deep reading is often associated with slow reading, allowing time to understand and critically analyze longer texts. It may be more illuminating to think of it as a state of mind associated with the kind of reading that captures our full attention and is invested with emotional intensity. We enter into such a state most easily if we care deeply about plots or issues that are described in captivating story lines or non-fiction narratives.
Deep reading provides the brain with a unique neural workout. The very act of reading requires the simultaneous recruitment and synchronization of multiple brain areas. Also, the words we read evoke automatically multiple associations and trigger cross-activation in different parts of the brain. This is particularly true of metaphors (such as “rough comparison” or “enlightenment”), but even a common word like “bug” evokes a burst of associations. These are related not only to familiar insects, but also to malfunctioning computer code, a small German-made car, etc. The processing of emotional expressions (such as “passionate love” or “gruesome carnage”) and story lines involves the same neural circuits that are used to navigate social relationships.
Deep reading is assisted by the possession of background knowledge and broad interests allowing the formation of rich associations. Such associations can make new observations or ideas meaningful, interesting, and even exciting (reading a stimulating book or article on an issue you care about can even give you a high). In such a physiological state, new knowledge is retained much more easily. Ideally, learning involves a virtuous circle where some interest and curiosity motivate and help us acquire broader knowledge; which helps us expand our current interests and become curious about new issues; which helps us expand our intellectual horizons even further, etc.
The possession and acquisition of rich background knowledge and understanding has a profound impact on the way we process new information. Even in visual perception, which seems to merely reflect “reality,” signals coming through the eyes are fused in the brain with past impressions to create images which are very much virtual constructs. As a result, when an art critic looks at a painting by Caravaggio, his or her perception is much richer than the perception of someone who has little art expertise. Such differences are even more profound in the sphere of ideas. This means that someone who has much relevant knowledge will have a more sophisticated comprehension of a complex text on political or social issues as compared to a “novice.” This is an area where Google can offer little help. As science journalist Annie Murphy Paul observes, “You can’t Google context.”
Learning any sets of new skills requires the formation of efficient, broadly distributed brain circuits. The biological mechanism which underlies the development of such circuits involves myelination, or the formation of a white fatty sheathing around nerve fibers. This insulation makes the transmission of neural signals a lot more efficient. It can be built up only through thousands of hours of “deep practice.” Seen in this light, the cumulative effect of deep reading is not limited to the acquisition of factual or theoretical knowledge. Rather, it includes the development of a new mode of thinking and of the brain itself.
Brain research suggests that practicing specific tasks can induce physiological changes in the brain areas involved in performing these. More interestingly, merely imagining the performance of some tasks can have a similar effect. For example, learning to play the piano will induce changes in brain wiring which can be observed on brain scans. Imagining that you play the piano produces the same neural effect. This means that a purely mental effort or exercise can help the brain develop new connections and capacities.
Years of deep reading can thus facilitate the development and integration of brain areas involved in abstract thinking or conceptualization, the fusion of logical reasoning and emotion, long-term planning, empathy (or social intelligence), moral intuition (since moral judgments seem to depend on “gut feelings”), etc. The full attention (which may require some effort) and the emotional involvement that underlie such reading trigger the release of brain chemicals and the synthesis of proteins which facilitate the formation of new and the consolidation of existing connections between neurons and different parts of the brain. Such brain plasticity forms the physiological basis of all learning. Deep reading is probably essential for acquiring an automatic sense of the grammar and syntax of a foreign (and maybe even your native) language – and thus to learning to write in decent English.
It is easier to fall into a state of deep reading when holding a real book, magazine, or printout in your hands. Apparently, the brain recognizes the difference between what is real and what is virtual, so texts or images gleaned from a screen evoke a weaker emotional reaction (this is why you cannot proofread from the screen). Computers and gadgets also offer more distractions, and deep reading is incompatible with multi-tasking. Deep reading can be supplemented by extensive handwriting, as it activates brain areas involved in idea composition and expression.
In addition to sustained deep reading, learning and brain development are facilitated by good sleep, lower stress levels, healthy eating, and physical exercise. The latest research suggests the brain uses periods of sleep to automatically sift through impressions from the day and select those which are emotionally tagged as significant. These are consolidation into long-term memory, and the rest are dumped to make room for more. Moderate levels of stress hormones facilitate brain plasticity and thus learning, but higher concentrations are harmful for both the brain and the body. Healthy eating and exercise help provide brain cells with the energy they need to function well, and exercise may also facilitate the formation of new neurons.
With all the distractions we now face, deep reading has become even more essential for learning and brain development. What seems to work best is reading texts that are complex or sophisticated (in terms of grammar/syntax, plot, ideas…) yet emotionally engaging – preferably from a hard copy. No tech startup has yet developed a true replacement.
Bounds, Gwendolyn. “How Handwriting Trains the Brain.” Wall Street Journal (Oct. 5, 2010).
Paul, Annie Murphy. “Your Head Is in the Cloud.” Time Magazine (12 March 2012)
______. “Your Brain on Fiction.” New York Times (17 March 2012).
Reynolds, Susan. “What You Read Matters More Than You Might Think.” Prime Your Brain Cells (blog), Psychology Today (7 June 2016).
Wolf, Maryanne, and Mirit Barzillai. “The Importance of Deep Reading.” Educational Leadership 66:6 (March 2009).