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What Does Immersing Yourself in a Book Do to Your Brain? (lithub.com)
195 points by dpflan on Aug 12, 2018 | hide | past | web | favorite | 49 comments

> A student came to him, a beautiful 13-year-old girl, who said she wanted to be part of his theater group performing William Shakespeare’s plays. It would have been an ordinary request, save for the reality that the young girl had advanced cystic fibrosis and had been told she had only a brief time to live.

and then...

> She went on to become one Shakespearean heroine after another, each role performed with more emotional depth and strength than the one before. Years have now passed since she played Juliet. Against all expectations and medical prognoses, she has entered college, where she is pursuing a dual degree in medicine and theater, in which she will continue to “pass over” into one role after another.

> That young woman’s exceptional example is not so much about whether the mind and heart can overcome the limitations of the body...

I don't understand this. Is the writer implying that 'advanced cystic fibrosis' is a limitation of the body and not a real disease, and so she was able to 'beat it' by immersing herself in reading and drama?

The 2 statements - "she had only a brief time to live" and "Years have now passed since she played Juliet. Against all expectations and medical prognoses" completely contradict each other. Did she 'beat the disease' (which seems improbable) or was she misdiagnosed in the first place?

Doctor here. Probably not misdiagnosed. It's a pretty solid diagnostic evaluation. (Can be hard to think of initially, but the testing is pretty accurate and reliable, so once you've thought of it you'll probably get it right).

But phenotypes vary widely. And so mis-prognosed sounds more accurate here. Probably just as bad as a missed diagnosis, so this may be semantics...


I grew up with two CF children who are nearly as close as sisters to me.

They are both alive, and "healthy", at least five years past what we had expected to be the years of their demise, and they show no signs of passing soon - and this is not just limited to them; their CF classes (which do still dwindle in size) are much larger than had been expected.

There are many different kinds of CF, but across the board the treatment has improved massively. It's a testament to the advancing field, the strategy of the NHS, and the persistence of the parents and children, that the lifespans predicted (on solid evidence) for these children keep being invalidated and extended.

> that the lifespans predicted (on solid evidence) for these children keep being invalidated and extended.

My understanding is that they are also cautious in generating such estimates, excluding any non-concrete factors (improvements in healthcare etc) that might be used to modify a purely frequentist estimation given historical data.

In general it's probably better to tell a cohort that they've an expected lifetime pessimistically than optimistically?

It's shitty bedside manner though, and provably harmful.

This reminds me of the story a few weeks ago of the hemophiliac kid who got HIV and then spent his whole childhood believing he would never grow up, never find love, never have a life.

How many people would just give in and roll over on that sort of news? It's self fulfilling prophecy.

Yes. They always couch their estimates with the 'using current methods'.

They do a lot of work to play down expectations, especially with respect to the kinds of things that may be seen in the media

I think you're creating a false dichotomy between "a real disease" and "a limitation of the body." Even for diseases that entirely result from external sources, our ability to survive them is a limitation of our body (e.g. some people will survive the same flu that other people die from). And cystic fibrosis is a genetic disorder, making it quite literally a limitation of your body as well as a real disease.

The passage is misleading but I think your interpretation is too literal as well. We don't know if she's still live but she's still well within the survival rate (according to Wikipedia). It most definitely improved her quality of life and perhaps that gave her system a boost. We do know that the mind might not be able to cure terminal diseases but it can be a powerful force in making life more manageable (placebo, etc.).

Some famous cases have been reported of deadly disease spontaneous remission. If it is not the mind then what else ?

Inherent in a diagnosis are some statistical assumptions. An individual case can beat the odds, so to speak.

On the topic of reading, read "The Reading Mind: A Cognitive Approach to Understanding How the Mind Reads" by Daniel T. Willingham [1]. It is very nicely written and each chapter focus on one aspect of reading (recognition of letters, extracting meaning ... ) and for each the author present evidence and also links to other work .

[1] https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/32285196-the-reading-min...

I've been thinking that in order to write well, the author has to empathize with their audience. The effect is that the reader is able to empathize with the author.

Math, programming, and writing are verbal skills, but good communication requires empathy, an emotional skill. I realized this was true after I realized I needed to consciously work on empathy because it is so crucial.

I think my code has improved quite a lot since I've been thinking empathically about current and future colleagues. If you keep in mind that this code will be read by other people, and if you really want them not to have a terrible time decyphering it, you start being more careful with naming, structure and syntax.

So yes, social empathy is important to craft great code.

You can never truly know your audience, you can only know yourself. Good writing involves getting in touch with yourself on a fundamentally human level that others can relate to. Good writing is about exploration and discovery. Writers that pander to an audience tend to be hacks, and the best they can hope for is to become shallow commercial successes.

I had never thought about programming (or, for what comes next, application development) as a verbal skill.

The more I think about it, the more it makes sense, especially as it pertains to UI/UX. About empathy -- you need to relate to your users, understand, be aware and sensitive of their needs and their thought process as they use your application.

Thanks for the interesting view. Not sure I read it too literally, but it gave me something to think about.

I can't prove it, but I really don't think that programming helps one to become more empathic. In my case, after a long programming session, I need about an hour to snap out of my analytical state of mind, and get my social/verbal skills back to their original level.

I've had the same - I have that quite a lot but have also have the reverse where immediately after a non-technical presentation being presented with a trivial technical problem that mind would not engage with.

Code is also a UI, for your coworker or future self who has to read and understand it. You also need to empathize with your future self and work to prevent confusion.

What strategies did you use to consciously work on your empathy?

I love the story of the Shakespearian actor. She put her soul into that, based on the idea she might not survive to adulthood.

I wonder how much this risk taking behavior learned from necessity helped her overachieve in adulthood, where she will now be an actor... and a doctor.

I've been getting into old scifi audiobooks. They're quite fascinating.

Not quite as immersive as a dead tree book, but at least I can still enjoy and be absorbed in it while walking/running.

What do you like so far? I used to listen to X Minus One and shows like that. I really enjoyed them and would love to listen to more scifi.

Right now I'm listing to a Niven/pournell 1977 book

but I've just finished about 4 Robert A. Heinlein books in a row... all around the 1950's with stories based on the future being late 70's to the year 2000.

Pretty funny listening really. though they're not meant to be.

Lucifer's Hammer, by chance? Man I still think about that book really often. Crazy plot twists.

Heinlein sounds good, I'll have to read more. Thank you.

yup! that's the one.

yeah RAH is an interesting one... some of his stuff is just plain wrong. One time his character cloned himself into little girls, then another he went back in time to have sex with his mother (when she was a hotty)...

but yeah. dude writes some really odd stuff.

Great article. I am not so sure about the concern that a new generation isn't connecting with books as prior generations have.

I tend to agree. Books and writing have never been less expensive or more accessible. There are literally thousands of very inexpensive self published books available on Kindle and other platforms with quality ranging from excellent to absolute trash.

Considering the other options now available, it is amazing to see so many kids around with their heads buried in books.

I find books incredibly more immersive than, say, a film, probably because books are so full of perspective.

This story about the actor is wonderful

You’re also reading a book, which is far more active than just passively watching stuff on a screen. A typical two year old has no trouble watching tv, but can’t read a book. Reading is a more cognitively taxing and attention-demanding activity, even when you’ve mastered it. Then beyond the raw reading, you have the activity of your imagination working to conjure images of what you’re reading, which is yet another layer of attention.

Reading is the best.

Why would “cognitively taxing” and “attention demanding” be criteria for an intellectually superior experience?

Many concepts are simply better described by a visual demonstration. There’s less communicative barriers that way. Just observe the cause and effect. You could be illiterate and still understand a visual demonstration.

My three year understands engineering concepts from goofy YouTube videos. He doesn’t read.

Is all of this proclamation about books being the superior format just akin to old-timers screaming “back in my day we listened to great music, not like this crap nowadays!”?

Many concepts cannot be described visually. You can't visualize how freshly cut grass smells, so there isn't much of a way to utilize that mental process as a manner of connecting you to something in your past to base a feeling off of. And you can't twist and break those feelings either - where you can easily, in words, take something like fresh cut grass and make it a painful experience by associating it with something like past trauma. Say, a description where an accident with a lawnmower led to a character losing an arm. Now that character is traumatized by the smell and in some manner so are you. There is less depth to the internalization a visual presentation of those events creates, as the book is more likely to force you into imagining those events and empathizing with the character. You may even end up traumatized yourself as the reader of such a powerfully connected piece.

>You can't visualize how freshly cut grass smells

Why can't I? Even to someone illiterate, this is an experience we've all had? And visually, seeing the blades of up close on a freshly cut lawn, with dew dripping down, might conjure up memories of summers past and the associated smells.

You're taking for granted that words are abstractions and aren't learned for most until they're 5 or 6. Meanwhile, visual recognition is something more innate and starts to appear in babies in as little as 2 or 3 months (smiling, recognizing parents, etc).

25% of the world's population is illiterate. By accessibility alone, video wins.

> 25% of the world's population is illiterate. By accessibility alone, video wins.

I don't think it's as clear cut as that. Literature doesn't have to be written; oral literature exists, and has been around for centuries, and was still fairly common even in living memory of people in the West. You can have literature without writing, basically... and that's always preceded video, and, I'd say, is probably the first form that humans encountered literature (and likely occurred when we first learned to speak, before Homo Sapiens Sapiens was even a thing)

> Why would “cognitively taxing” and “attention demanding” be criteria for an intellectually superior experience?

Because, just like exercise strengthens your muscles, reading strengthens portions of your brain. TV, on the other hand, literally rots your brain.


Reading Gödel, Escher, Bach? Intellectually positive. Reading a Harlequin novel? Intellectually neutral or negative (opportunity costs). The point is, as for intellectual advancement, choice of content is actually what matters, not the medium.

Regarding books vs video : If a book mentions a Wankel engine, I have to look up that definition or gloss over it, hoping it's concept is revealed later.

If I watch a video and it mentions a "Wankel engine" and I see an engine rotating around and immediately get the gist of how it works. E.g. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=josJhz8VS8A

> Reading a Harlequin novel?

In general, a work in a visual medium - a painting, a comic book or a film - supplies ALL or most of the inputs. A book supplies only some of the inputs and we, the readers, supply the rest.

Here's the thing: a good reader supplies good inputs and an average reader supplies average inputs. This is why children are described as "imaginative readers". They "live" in the story-world whereas we adults skim through it.

So even if it's a Harlequin novel, you can make it as vivid as you'd like. But that effort will be substantially more than watching even a good film adaptation of a Harlequin novel.

> Reading Gödel, Escher, Bach? Intellectually positive. Reading a Harlequin novel? Intellectually neutral or negative (opportunity costs).

Not according to the brain scans. The content doesn't matter. It's the act of reading that strengthens the brain. If you manage to get more out of it than that, well that's gravy.

> Regarding books vs video

Maybe this was intended for another comment? I haven't said anything about video. TV is not youtube. The consumption patterns are different.

> Not according to the brain scans.

Which brain scans? Isn't it common knowledge now that most of those stories of "we put someone in fMRI and had them do X" are nonsense? Also, fMRI is hard and until recently, 25-40% of studies got it wrong. See [0].

> It's the act of reading that strengthens the brain.

Good to know I'm strengthening my brain every day, spending 10 hours reading code and/or HN comments. :).


[0] - https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/scicurious-brain/ignobe...

Active learning is more effective than passive learning, but requires more effort.

Active learning can occur with both mediums.

Because one gains more from any experience wherein something in the way of effort is demanded. A beautiful vista is more sweet when it takes effort to get to it. A relationship with a person is more fulfilling when trials and tribulations are overcome together. Hard won knowledge imparts a deeper wisdom when it is obtained in spite of difficulties. You would like to believe your child understands concepts from videos because it makes you feel good, but I doubt you are going to have him build your deck. Intentional effort is a prerequisite for deeper fulfilment. While there are things that are better demonstrated via flashing images, there is no substitute for the cognitive effort required to read deeply on a subject, or follow a rich and complex narrative.

>Because one gains more from any experience wherein something in the way of effort is demanded.

This is true, however it's an argument for choosing hard goals (because they are hard, e.g. 'we choose to go to the moon...'); it's not an argument for doing things the hard way. For example, given a choice for learning how to build a deck I think I'd pick YouTube over a DIY manual.

But popular music these days IS mostly crap.

Said every generation ever.

You're absolutely right. Read a book 5 times and your imaginative representation will differ. Read it after years and "get" other aspects that you were not wise or mature enough to understand at a previous reading. Films have their own qualities but they are pretty much what you see. I'd be honest, I watched films I didnt get when I became more mature and they were somewhat different too.

Humans have been creating virtual realities since telling stories around campfires hundreds of millennia ago. I can become entraced in an oral story as well as print novel or movie. Many cultures have had long oral books of myths or religion. The Greek Illiad and Hindu Bhagavad Gita Are examples.

This is something I would recommend to everyone. Try and find a master storyteller, and sit and listen to them tell a story. It's quite a different experience, but immensely rewarding in my opinion. It can show how literature doesn't necessarily have to be written, and is something that has existed, in oral form, likely since the first people capable of speech. It's actually a shame, in my opinion, that it's dying out. It coexisted with writing for quite a while, up to living memory of people in the West, I'd say.

Or read the Old Testament, or any of the Eastern scriptures. All those stories, with the possible exception of the Maccabees, were originally passed down orally, even after they got written down.

The New Testament loses a lot, in my opinion, by being written almost purely for literary composition.


Since it seems like you won't stop trolling, we've banned the account. We're happy to unban accounts if you email us at hn@ycombinator.com and commit to using the site as intended.

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