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  • Writer's pictureBill Stauffer

Gratitude Friday 2/9/24 – The Brain on Books

As I look at my life, I count myself as a lottery winner. For the record, I have played the lottery less times in my life than I have fingers and toes, I so don’t mean this literally but figuratively. Gambling in the literal sense is a losing proposition for me. This is probably a good thing, because if I ever put a quarter in a slot machine and a boat load of money came pouring out, parts of my brain that I have worked hard to put to sleep might wake up in ways that would be detrimental to my well-being, but I digress.


Arguably, my life has had its ups and downs. Some of the “downs” have been quite low, but all in all, if the time for the big dirt nap came now, I would consider my life well lived. As it is said, hard choices easy life, easy choices hard life. Early on, I opted for easy street and slid into a world of pain. Gratefully, life handed me some really painful lessons and I paid attention. I made some hard choices and climbed out of the hole I had created for myself. I was provided some opportunities and did the work, at least once I figured out that life was not going to deal me a royal flush. It would also be more than fair to say my life has been a collective effort with a whole lot of help from key people in my life over the course of it.


As I wrote about a few weeks ago, I have a rich internal dialogue occurring at nearly all times. It is like a chorus of ideas and data that I hear in my head. I do not have a perfect recollection by far. I can have difficulty with names and faces, but I can stand by a river and run through the history of the place without much effort. I hear the history in my head, or what I have learned and connections to other events I have read about just kind of flow through the noggin.


As I have learned over the years, there is actually a lot of diversity in how our brains function. In considering the whole nature / nurture thing, how are brains are wired starts out in the nature column. We get what we get when we are born in simple terms if we avoid epigenetics. Once born, it is all about nurture. One of the fascinating things about the human brain is that it rewires itself! We train it with what we do. We can rewire our brains to be and do better. This is actually why I write this weekly blog because I want to be more grateful.


But I think that the thing in the nurture column over the course of my life that has made the most differences is reading books. A lot of books. Starting very early in life, I read everything I could get my hands on, encyclopedias, almanacs, dictionaries, novels, and books on a host of non-fiction topics. I think reading in many ways saved my life. When I started to make mistakes in life (I skipped most of my high school years), that I had read a lot was a buffer that allowed me to get back on track. When addiction started to take hold and some of the hard facts became apparent, I was well read enough to spot truths that I really did not want to see in that moment.


One of the things I have noted over the years is the decline in reading books. According to this Gallup Poll, the percentage of US readers is the lowest ever measured since they started examining reading rates in 1960. As noted in the article, the decline is greater among subgroups that tended to be more avid readers, particularly college graduates but also women and older Americans. College graduates read an average of about six fewer books in 2021 than they did between 2002 and 2016. We want phones and computers that process information better, we should want that for our own brains. This link explains the areas of the brain that are strengthened when we read.


One of the reasons that reading books is particularly important in our current era is most of our media comes at us in very short bursts. As our brains are “taught” by everything we do, we end up inadvertently teaching our brains to have very short attention spans. Consider that most of the feedback in relation to academic learning I hear these days is that we should put learning nuggets in TikTok video clips, because even a few pages of information or a presentation longer that 7 minutes is just too much for people to handle. This is probably why we are increasingly having trouble understanding and addressing complex problems, but again I digress.


If you are older, you should consider reading as it helps retain your memory and processing capacities. This article notes that deep reading, like that you do when you read a good book, strengthens your ability to imagine alternative paths, remember details, picture detailed scenes, and think through complex problems. In short, reading makes you not just more knowledgeable, but also functionally smarter. Conversely, less reading is making us dumber and less able to grasp complex problems. One thing that is unfortunately bountiful in our current world is complex problems. We will not tik-Tok ourselves out of climate change or the challenges created by server substance dependence.


I made a lot of mistakes in my life, but when I take stock of how I got through those challenges I mostly created for myself, reading takes center stage. I am grateful for a huge stack of good books to read!

What are you grateful for today?

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