Reading: Brain Candy or Vitamins?

September is always a whirlwind for me.  My life is on an academic calendar, so I always think of September 1 as my new year.  Teaching, classes, research, lab work, editing, deadlines, conferences...it seems as though everything ramps up at the same time.  While I relish the busy days (I'm not good with being bored...), it always ends in a stress filled, exhausted end of the month.  It makes me feel like I need a vacation, but, alas, winter break is still months away...

Since we moved into our condo, I have had every intention to set up a "reading nook" in our bedroom. Considering our place is ~650sq ft - fairly standard for city living, but still tight - I wanted a place to unwind and relax that wasn't the couch.  A place of rest that we could access during our everyday.   Over a year after we moved in,  I decided to make a commitment to actually seeing this DIY project through!

I knew this overwhelming day at the end of September would arrive, and I wanted to be prepared.  So, at the beginning of the month, I sought out a really comfy chair.  A nice big, tuck your legs up under you, snuggle beneath a soft throw, and just breath, kind of chair.  And, as if the fates were urging me forward, in the car ride to pick this down-filled-sanctuary up, I heard a story on NPR about the importance of mindfulness, and how our society is SO stressed that we cannot even sit still long enough to read a book anymore.  We read news clips, tweets, and facebook posts with such rapidity, we never actually let our brains settle into the words.

Heaven on Earth.

One of my favorite researchers, John Kabat-Zinn calls the ability to really pay attention "mindfulness".  Beyond just being able to focus on the right-now, the idea is that quieting the brain, can also lead to incredibly positive physiologic effects - overall happiness, a robust immune system, stress reduction and healthy emotional responses when confronted with turmoil.  The scientific research is young, but results are very encouraging.   Other researchers apply mindfulness to the ability to complete tasks during your day.  They call it inhibitory control, which they basically define as, "being able to shut off when you know there are other things you could be doing".  For example, writing an abstract instead of watching television (guilty...).    The great thing is, all researchers agree that this technique can be molded, or taught but that this capacity is fundamentally important to success and health.

This is a long video by Jon Kabat-Zinn on Mindfulness Training.

And yet again, I found the fates were driving me to write this post (...also vindicating the money I spent on my new cozy chair...) when a new bit of research came of out Stanford this month.  In this study, they asked a bunch of PhD students to read Jane Eyre in an MRI machine and monitored what their brains did with regard to attention and distraction.  What they found was surprising.

When the students were intently reading the novel, blood flowed to areas of the brain that are involved in complex cognitive patterns.   This might not seem too surprising, you have to think pretty hard to read 19th century British literature.  But the interesting component is that the blood flow went much deeper into the brain than during the focus a person would put into regular work.  It seems that neural patterns are being developed that may actually be training our brain to to be better at deeper comprehension and more intense concentration.  Just by reading.

The researchers went even further though.  They asked the students to read leisurely, like you might scan a book that is interesting to you in a bookstore.  They found that this activated pleasure centers in the brain, but again, at a deeper level than you would expect to see when a person experiences a simple positive encounter.  The scientists describe these phenomenon as, "far more complex than just work and play."

I know that most of us have about zero time during the day to do any kind of reading besides headlines and tweets.  But, I also don't know anyone that couldn't use a little break from the chaos...often feeling a bit overwhelmed or, at the end of a hectic month, completely exhausted.  So, while we may not be able to take a vacation for a while, a little part of the answer may be a tiny lesson in mindfulness - in focus - by turning the pages of a good ol' fashioned book.   Whether it's a little trashy brain candy, or a hefty non-fiction vitamin, slowing down and paying attention to the words on the page could be a piece missing from your strong process.  Take care of your head, the rest of your body needs it.

Brain Candy....Yum!