The human brain seems to hum along quite nicely without too much effort, by just employing established patterns and routines. However, I suggest that it can easily do so much better with novelty and random activity added to help build neuronal connections.
In school we had to memorize all sorts of stuff, good for training our young minds, but just memorizing poems, formulae, dates, and the like wasn’t enough to enable us to appreciate literature, wonder at science, or gain historical perspective.
We are not stuck with a static brain, nor are we necessarily stuck with a deteriorating one. Neuroscientists have discovered within the past twenty years that an adult brain can regenerate brain cells. Regarding dementia, almost seventy percent of brain ageing is controllable, through mental and physical exercise, along with diet. American neuroscientist Dr. Steven Miller, from the Scientific Learning Corporation said, “The things you do, how much you write, what you do to challenge your brain, actually decrease the chances of age-related memory loss.”
Curiosity is the key to quality learning. To grow, the human brain needs to be challenged. We’ve discovered most of what we know about how the brain learns in the past decade. For instance the pleasure center of the brain responds strongly to the unexpected, and thus, that novelty can be a strategic tool for training the brain.
What does this have to do with reading fiction? Recent research at Baylor College of Medicine and Emory University has helped explain why some people crave the unexpected. Experiments have shown that the brain’s reward pathways respond more strongly to unexpected than expected stimuli. This may help explain aspects of addictive behavior such as drug-taking and gambling, risky decision-making, participation in extreme sports, and yes, the joy of reading fiction. In learning new material, the brain is challenged. That’s a good thing because, of all our organs, the brain is the only one that will continue to grow and develop if properly nourished and stimulated. The more it is used, the better it becomes.
Mental stimulations make brain cells generate new extensions, resulting in richer information processing. Reading fiction, especially ranging across authors, pushes our boundaries as we vicariously experience fresh scenarios and identify with the characters. No wonder they call them novels. Forcing us to create the scenes, the look of the characters, the smells, and the sounds, and prodding our emotions, reading fiction stimulates all of our senses and tweaks our brain. Reading does this much better than simply watching someone else’s interpretation on film or in a play.
How does this translate into the real world? It shows up in greater creativity. Smart businesses today look for innovative thinkers who can recognize changes in market patterns and who strive for better processes and procedures. Progressive companies seek leaders, not just followers.
So, what’s the secret for keeping that brain active? Stay curious, collaborate with others for different perspectives, embrace chance opportunities, and push the boundaries.