Illuminating words to boost the brain


Is our ability to read in decline? Or more to the point, is my ability to read in serious trouble?

Many years ago, I was presenting a little talk to fellow students on an article we were required to read. The teacher severely chastised me for mis-reading the author’s words. I was taken aback, so sure that I had interpreted the passage correctly.

He was right. I was wrong, and I’ve been carefully reading everything ever since.

I’m currently organising a transfer of driver’s licence and car registration, and I seem to be struggling unusually with the fine print. It’s not the glasses. It could be lack of caffeine. Unfortunately, it’s probably lack of practice. It’s been a few weeks since I seriously read anything serious.

Most people will say they are reading more than ever – every time they look at that tiny screen in their hand.  But others will argue that what we read is the critical factor.

This post was prompted by an article titled “Classic way to turbo-boost the brain”. It seems we don’t realise how much better off we are when we feel stupid. They weren’t talking about that old saying “Ignorance is bliss”. Instead, they were writing about those times when we are confronted with words and ideas we don’t know.

Our brains love the hard stuff. The brain will light up when thinking about something unfamiliar.

When I hear the phrase “light up”, I see images of twinkling stars, flickering flames in an open fire and the sudden illumination of a dark corner somewhere.

It’s a shame it doesn’t always feel like that! Instead, don’t those tough words and ideas feel more like crawling into that dark corner and demanding someone turn the blinking light off? The common reaction is avoidance, stay in the safe zone and feel smart enough.

My reading habits run in cycles. At the moment, it is bland and unappetising. The challenge has gone. I need to mix it up a bit.

What should I read first to get back on track?

Let’s start with a game: Think about the last thing you read that didn’t challenge you? What was the topic? What type of reading material was it? Newspaper? Short story? Blog? Facebook post? Map?  (Of course, the answer would be “This Blog Post”, but think back further!)

The last thing I read was a government website, looking for information, skipping along, not very challenging.

Then I found this post as a half-finished draft on my computer and went looking for the article that triggered it. I started to read, then sighed and moved on. I just didn’t want to be challenged RIGHT NOW!

I came very close to buying a book yesterday, except it was the last shop on the list, after all the essentials we deliberately traveled to buy, and with the weather turning unpleasant, I couldn’t be bothered backtracking to the bookshop … all in all, there was nothing compelling enough to justify the effort.

I should stop thinking of it as an effort. That’s counter-productive.

Perhaps I should think of it as a stairway. I’m currently reading at this level. Time to step up one level. OK. That type of thinking could work. So what is the step up from an information website? Just about everything, probably.

After packing, organising, moving and getting myself settled into a new routine, it’s time to get back into reading.

So, this weekend I will treat myself to a magazine from the specialist section of the news agency – one with very few pictures. Easy does it.



Smith, PD. “Reading and the Reader by Philip Davis – review“, The Guardian, 26 October 2013.

Henry, J. “Shakespeare and Wordsworth boost the brain, new research reveals“, The Telegraph, 13 January 2013.

O’Sullivan, N , Davis, P , Billington, J , Gonzalez-Diaz, V and Corcoran, R (2015) “Shall I compare thee”: The neural basis of literary awareness, and its benefits to cognition. University of Liverpool.







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