Books and Culture

Neuroscience explains the astonishing benefits of reading books like a writer—even if you don't plan on becoming one

Lesia Valentain | Twenty20

Here's a question that's probably never crossed your mind: "What's the best way to read a book? "

Of course, the logic goes that if you can read words and understand the meanings behind them, you can easily digest a book from start to finish. But your reading technique (a.k.a. how you process information in books) can largely influence your brain's performance and how you approach certain things in life.

Different techniques of reading

You might be a skimmer, quickly darting through paragraphs to get the main points. You might be a detailed reader, meticulously taking in each and every single word. You might even be a chapter-hopper, jumping straight to only the sections that sound interesting to you.

Bill Gates is highly committed and attentive when it comes to his reading habits. "I refuse to stop reading a book in the middle, even if I don't like it," Gates once told Time. "And the more I dislike a book, the more time I take to write margin notes. That means I sometimes spend more time reading a book that I can't stand than a book that I love."

Inside the mind of a writer

Reading like a writer can help strengthen your skills in communication and storytelling. More importantly, it can help you to become a more persuasive person, which is an essential skill to have if you're trying to convince someone you're right, pitch an idea or sell yourself for a job you really want.

The goal of every writer is to really draw you into their idea — they want you to be engaged, committed and convinced that their words are worth reading. Fiction writers do this by creating captivating plots and relatable characters. Non-fiction writers do this by gathering data and facts and putting it together in an authoritative way.

What good writing does to your brain

The best writers know how piece together certain concepts and information in a way that can hack into different parts of a reader's brain.

A 2006 study published in NeuroImage asked "participants to read words with strong odor associations, along with neutral words, while their brains were being scanned by a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) machine."

Whenever participants read words like "perfume" and "coffee," their primary olfactory cortex (the part of your brain that processes "smell") lit up like fireworks on the fMRI machine. Words like "velvet" activated the sensory cortex (which processes "feelings") of the brain. Researchers concluded that in certain cases, the brain can make no distinction between reading about an experience and encountering it in real life.

Good writers know how to choose the right words.

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Keith Oatley, emeritus professor of cognitive psychology at the University of Toronto, puts it in a simpler way. In an article published in the New English Review, he wrote that good writers go beyond basic language areas, and are able to tell a story that produces a lucid stimulation of reality — one that "runs on minds of readers just as computer simulations run on computers."

The takeaway here is that writers use words that are deeply tied to human senses — words that, quite literally, "come to life" in the reader's mind. Reading like a writer can help you understand their tools and craft, which can be used to your advantage in real-life situations, no matter field of work you're in.

Here's how to read like a writer:

1. Read the entire book at least once, even if you don't understand it

Most people have one goal in mind when reading a book: To download as much information in the least amount of time possible.

And yet, as they're reading, they'll often start and stop, or Google certain concepts and words they don't understand. Some will get sidetracked and dive into studies or events referenced in the book or go back and reread chapters multiple times until they "get it."

But there's immense power in partially — and not entirely — understanding the idea behind a book.

My goal for 2019, for example, is to learn how to read, write and speak in French. A friend recommended I start by reading children's books in French. I ended up not understanding 90 percent of the words, but I still had a strong grasp of the idea. (Admittedly, the pictures helped.)

The process went something like this:

It can be incredibly frustrating to read a book that you don't quite understand, but so badly want to. Instead of fumbling through a dictionary, read the book from start to finish at least once to get the general message. It'll be easier to understand when you reread it the second time.

2. Look for the author's persuasion tactics

Journalist and best-selling author Malcolm Gladwell uses many tactics to persuade his readers. In each of his books, his goal is to get readers to believe three things:

  1. That his idea is valid
  2. That he has the authority to write about the idea
  3. That the idea is worth caring about

Gladwell convinces readers that his books are valid by providing logical arguments. He convinces readers that he has the authority to write about the ideas by providing research and support from industry experts. He convinces readers that his ideas are worth caring about by examining curious or relatable concepts (i.e., how adversity can be an advantage in disguise) by using fascinating and unlikely characters (i.e. a giants) to explain them.

The next time you read a book, look closely for parts that trigger each of these three persuasion tactics and think about how you can apply them to real-life situations.

3. Take note of the metaphors

Compare the two sentences below:

  1. "A velvet voice spilled from her radio."
  2. "A nice voice played on her radio."

At first, the meaning behind these two sentences might sound identical, but your brain doesn't think so.

In 2012, researchers from Emory University discovered that metaphors have the ability to access different regions of the brain. A metaphor like "he had leathery hands," for example, roused the participants' sensory cortex to activity, while something like "he had strong hands" did nothing at all.

Understand how to use metaphors can have a power impact on how you communicate with ours. So as you're reading a book, do your best to compare a how the author uses certain words and metaphors to emphasize and enhance an idea or description.

Todd Brison is the author of "The Creative's Curse" and "The Unstoppable Creative." He is also co-author of the forthcoming book "The Unfair Advantage." Todd has been featured on Inc., The Ladders and The Huffington Post. Follow him on Twitter @toddbrison.

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Lesia Valentain | Twenty20
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