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Learning to Read in Your 30s Profoundly Transforms the Brain (nautil.us)
367 points by dnetesn on Nov 5, 2018 | hide | past | web | favorite | 165 comments

Cool article! The original is actually from a year and a half ago (https://www.mpg.de/11312776/lesenlernen-veraenderung-gehirn-...), curious why they published it only now in English.

One quote bothered me, however: "Hindi, one of the official languages of India, is based on Devanagari, a scripture with complex characters describing whole syllables or words rather than single letters."

This isn't entirely correct.


- isn't complex. there are only 46 characters, whose strokes aren't meaningfully harder than Latin ones to write, unlike, say, Chinese where strokes can be intricate. They're typically one or two-stroke characters.

- 1:1 unambiguously maps writings to sounds, unlike English. yes, it does map to syllables. it's immediately obvious how to pronounce a word when reading it. I can't imagine them having to learn a language like English, where you have to rote memorize exceptions all the time.

- doesn't have characters that describe whole words...not sure where they got this idea. There are really short words that can be said with one syllable, but that's coincidence, like in English "a" is both a character and a word, though I wouldn't claim that letters map to words because of it.

English is easy to learn if you just pronounce it like it's written and how it was pronounced, you know

Seems like a good time to link to "The Chaos" by Gerard Nolst Trenite [1]... It serves to educate native English speakers on how absurd the language (written vs. spoken) is, while simultaneously striking fear into the hearts of ESL folks worldwide.

Best read out loud - try too appreciate how much context and rule-of-rhyme you have to apply to read it correctly.

[1] http://ncf.idallen.com/english.html

I'm about to turn 33 and only within the last year have I really discovered the joy of reading books. I went from reading maybe 1 or 2 books a year to reading a book a week, and I'm on track to read close to 50 books this year (slowed down quite a bit by reading a textbook as part of auditing a class).

If only I had discovered this earlier in my life who knows where I'd be now, but better late than never I suppose.

Buy books at your local bookstore. The one in my town does such a good job with curation that I can pick something on any topic at random and 9/10 times it will be excellent. I think we'll see this more and more as people put less and less stock in Amazon reviews.

Alternatively, go to your local library and check out books for free. If you feel like you need to own them, then buy from the local book store. Supporting the local library is more important since they (almost?) all do great community outreach for literacy (children programs, etc).

yes, but without the people supporting the local bookstore who will be supporting the independent authors we need to write the books we read. We need both.

And without books being bought, how will I judge people I visit?

Finnish authors have also "library grants" and "library compensation" which means those independent authors will get paid if somebody loans their work. So you can also support their work "for free" by loaning the books.

I never said "do not support the local bookstore." Obviously we need both.

The absolute cheapest best thing you can do for your kids is take them to the library.

At-least the libraries in Washington are pretty cool.

And always check used bookstores. You can find gems there, and often take chances on new things because they're so cheap. And don't forget libraries! I could wax poetic about all those places.

In Germany we have booklooker.de as a market place for used books. I recently bought an autobiography from there which has out of print for many years. And I found the experience of holding a book in my hand older than myself strangely exciting. That book was printed ten years before I was born. The pages had taken on a yellow shade. Of course I held plenty of really old books in my hand by now. But only then I realized it might become a habit. Especially when there is a choice. You want to read a Mark Twain? Why not by an edition from before the Great War?

I'm well aware of booklooker, and it's amazing. There's also bookfinder.com here in America. They're some of the best places to start looking if you want rare/old/niche books.

The Amazon book shopping experience is atrocious too, if you want to read books on say, computing, the "bestsellers" are full of junk SEO optimisation tutorial books and Minecraft trash.

It's like wading through a swamp!

That's one thing I really don't get. I'm currently getting acquainted with AWS beyond the usual suspects (EC2, S3, RDS). Of course I was eager to check out their AI solutions. And guess what - they perform surprisingly subpar especially against the backdrop of their marketing promises. Now I know why they can't even keep their categorizations in order or provide a powerful text search - they lack the technology.

> I think we'll see this more and more as people put less and less stock in Amazon reviews.

Not going to happen, bookstores will keep dying.

What are the benefits that you're experiencing with increased reading?

I'd say a deeper more complex and connected understanding of the world. Truly phenomenal authors were masters of framing so many things I thought of strictly in objective terms in a more subjective light. You begin to realize how the world is filled with very shallow thoughts and ideas. You can really only come to that realization after digesting long form arguments and narratives.

What books can you recommend?

Not OP, couple rando suggestions:

High concept sci-fi:. Three body problem by Liu cixin, or A deepness in the sky by Vernor vinge

Character drama: 11/22/63 Stephen king, or really almost anything by him

Don't underestimate lit-trash -- it's worlds better than Twitter -- Lee child jack reacher novels are fun, so were the original Tom Clancy run. Altered carbon on the cuberpunk front.

And of course the classics if you're willing to invest -- most of them are worth it, otherwise they wouldn't be classics

And even the classics in various genres. Like, you can't necessarily go wrong with reading Douglas Adams, or Arthur C. Clarke or J.R.R. Tolkien, especially as a novice in a genre.

That said, I'd recommend reading Les Misérables to everyone. Definitely an amazing book.

And Count of Montecristo.

Funny, if I think of my favorite books I'd probably say the Three Body Problem trilogy, A Deepness In The Sky, and The Stand...maybe because I haven't read 11/22/63 yet. I better read Altered Carbon since you seem to have exactly the same taste as me.

I'd add that reading the whole Three Body Problem trilogy is highly recommended since it gets higher concept every book. And personally I enjoyed A Fire Upon The Deep just as much as A Deepness In The Sky.

The Stand is an actual classic, I should have mentioned it if I mentioned King. 11/22/63 is more of a less-epic, mature character work. Cheers to good taste!

I had no idea what I was getting into when I read The Stand back in high school. I thought Stephen King was a "horror" author, and the only thing I knew about him was that he wrote IT. The Stand remains one of the best books I have ever read.

King is awesome, though I prefer his novellas and short works. Apt pupil? The Showshank Redemption? The Breathing Method? really, all of 'different seasons' was incredible.

I wrote a really long winded response about some of my favorite authors and their corresponding favorite books. Each tackle different cross-sections of thought. All of them have had an everlasting impact in how they completely eliminate my ability to have binary ideologies.

Perhaps being able to read and enjoy poetry, is elevating ones level of understanding to an even higher plane, that reading just prose.

Who are some of your favorite authors?

Steinbeck, Vonnegut, Dostoyevsky, Ursula Le Guin, David Foster Wallace (I could truly go on forever, but I think these authors are phenomenal, with themes and meta-themes different from one another).

I think if you watch an interview with DFW you will realize just how much he has thought of just about every facet of modern, entertainment-centric western society - all coming together in Infinite Jest which is the most depressing book I've ever read (he later committed suicide, so it might have been the most depressing contemporary book ever written either). Le Guin's The Left Hand of Darkness models an entire planetary civilization with no fixed sex (written in 1969, mind you), which I found very eye-opening. Dostoyevsky's The Brothers Karamazov (as well as Crime and Punishment) are extraordinarily psychological and philosophical - ethics, free will, and God are centric. Both Steinbeck and Vonnegut have multiple books I'd recommend, but East of Eden by Steinbeck is an all-time favorite tackling good and evil (honestly Nietzsche in novel); Slaughterhouse 5 by Vonnegut (just a notch above Heller's Catch-22) is the embodiment of darkness and absurdity. Take an anti-war sentiment and an author willing to tiptoe to the border of sanity and insanity and the result is SH5. It is truly brilliant, and as someone who is fortunate enough to not have ever been impacted greatly by wartime, it is equally eye-opening.

Honorable mention (a book I have read more recently) goes to Tom Wolfe with The Bonfire of the Vanities. This book combines the legal system (police and prosecutors), personal greed and ambition (Wall Street bond salesman), racism (Media biases), and class structures and privilege in a hard hitting social critique on 80s New York City. Everything between its covers is key to understanding how the world actually works.

This turned out to be a lot longer than I anticipated. Hopefully it is helpful!

The tangible benefits:

1. Increased vocabulary

2. Practice and improvement of skills I'm specifically reading about (as many of the books I'm reading are for acquiring skills related to my job)

3. Simply reading about new topics encourages me to read books further exploring on that peripheral knowledge

The intangibles:

1. The momentum for reading begets more reading, which makes me feel good about spending my time reading over watching TV/movies/surfing the net.

2. I feel more knowledgeable and empathetic. In this past year I read stories about impoverished refugees from North Korea, American politics, and stories of overcoming seemingly impossible odds. These are topics I never get to explore in my day job, and it helps me feel more well-rounded.

Getting in the mind and lives of other persons, in ways (or rather, depth) that casual discussion, tv, and film can't even begin to touch, and learning to understand and/or appreciate different perspectives and circumstances.

I'm in a similar situation. Increased patience is one of the more noticeable outcomes.

I've been wanting to get in to reading, but my biggest issue is finding something to read that interests me. How did you start finding things?

Easiest for me to get started (since it was topical and I could convince myself there was value) was to pick the most interesting books from the "most mentioned on HN" lists out there [0].

[0] https://hackernewsbooks.com/top-books-on-hacker-news

Thanks. Didn't know about that. Bookmarking that pronto!

What interests you in other mediums? For example, if you like sci-fi movies, try reading some sci-fi books. Some people look down on shitty genre fiction, but it's great for getting you into the habit of reading. And as you read more and more of those guilt pleasures, you will become interested in trying other genres or more literary works.

Here's Reddit's top 200: https://www.goodreads.com/shelf/show/reddit-top-200. Pick one that sounds interesting.

Those list dumps aren't particularly useful, as you have everything from Calvin & Hobbes and Tolstoy to Freakanomics and King James Bible.

- If you're looking for easy-entry, entertaining contemporary scifi, start with Red Rising, Hyperion, Old Man's War, Children of Time, or We Are Legion - We Are Bob.

- Classic Scifi is harder since some of it has not aged well. Easy-entry here would be I Robot, Moon is a Harsh Mistress, I am Legend, Dune, or Flowers for Algernon.

- Fantasy genre also suffers from repeated/common tropes, but some of the more inventive or engaging ones are Blood Song, Prince of Thorns (dark), The Blade Itself, or Sabriel (Audiobook by Tim Curry).

I would like to add the Hitch Hikers Guide to the Galaxy to that list.

1. What are you interested in? 2. Seek out popular books on indicated interest. 3. Choose book and read.

Seriously though, I jumped back into reading by picking a genre I loved, but was very behind on. In my case it was science fiction and started with the rather famous Dune. There have been some books I started and did not like so I stopped. When I find a stack of books for free I try to seek out if anything looks interesting (and check for quality) and grab 1 or 2. Worst case scenario you can just returneth the book from whence it came.

There's always Gnod[0].

Finally getting into reading will be like picking up any other activity. You need to fully commit for a while before it becomes something that you really need to do (rather something you only want to do).

[0] http://www.gnod.com/

When I am at a loss for something to read and I want something that is usually a low-effort but very good read, i throw darts at the Pulitzer for fiction list.

I'm reading Greer's "Less" today, the most recent winner, and it is really pretty great.

If you haven't read Hemingway, "The Old Man and the Sea" is a pretty good starting point.

If you are into post-apocalyptic fiction at all, you need to read McCarthy's "The Road"

(Note, if you want Steinbeck - personally, I liked 'Of Mice and Men' a lot more than "The Grapes of Wrath" but both are good. Just saying I don't always side with the committee)

I mean, we can argue all day about what the best book is, but everything on that list is going to be both very good and usually quite accessible; you will note that Joyce is conspicuously absent, and a few of these are assigned reading in high school.

If you want to read stuff before that (and get free books from gutenberg!) I recommend you check out Mark Twain and Joseph Conrad. Both are excellent. "The end of his tether" is my favorite Conrad. "Roughing it" is my favorite Twain.

Not necessarily great for starting, but document what you read on Goodreads, or some other similar site. It starts to recommend more books based on that (and what other users have said about them), and I've found some real gems that way.

For starting, you could still use Goodreads to possibly find something interesting, or take a recommendation from someone who has similar taste in other things as you.

It’s a little high brow for me rather too often, but have a flick through a London Review Of Books. Don’t subscribe as you’ll feel great shame if you don’t get through them all. Or find some other review process - eg work your way though Booker Prize winners. Most decent papers have a review section too. Once you find your source your sorted for ages as reviews rarely date.

I started reading things that were related to programming but weren't textbooks (i.e. The Pragmatic Programmer and The Mythical Man-Month).

Then I started reading books on skills I wanted to acquire (i.e. Traction for marketing and SPIN Selling for sales).

All of those books lead to recommendations into other books.

Listening to podcasts that recommend books increase the breadth of books I'm reading.

My wife brings home books from the library and I read whatever she reads (i.e. Hillbilly Elegy and The People vs Democracy), and those lead to other nonfiction books I become interested in. And then there are the "classic" novels I interleave from time to time (i.e. Siddhartha and Meditations).

It just starts with maybe a handful of books you are dying to read, try to read for 15 min before bed, and before you know it, you're 50 books into the year!

For literary fiction, literary friends and book reviews. Also, anytime you see a name come up again and again, look into getting a something they have written. I bought Dostoyevsky because I kept seeing him come up (worth it).

Find small/independent presses that do cool things; even independent presses as large as New Directions will have a certain culture you can base opinions off of and figure out if its worth your time. Note that if its an imprint of one of the Big 5 theres no way to know if the book is gonna be worth it based on that.

And read books in translation. By virtue of being translated you already know its worth somebody's time, bad books arent often translated. And often they are hella good.

I loved thethecouple of books by dostoyevsky i have read. They were difficult to get into, but it occurs to me one of the really interesting and pleasant things about reading is attuning yourself to a writers tempo, patterns and word play. It forces you to adjust your own internal voice.

If you have access to a good library, it's a good place to try various types of books to see what you like. Ultimately, what you will be reading a few years later is hard to predict from what you start reading now. However, in the beginning, finding something that "hooks" you is the best bet because it gives you the experience of being absorbed in a book. These are the books with which I have introduced some people to the world of books:

- The Lord of The Rings

- The Hobbit

- Dracula

- The Little Prince

- Animal Farm

- Asterix and Obelix comicbooks

- Siddhartha

For the next time, I'm going to try "Necronmicon" (H. P. Lovecraft!)

(EDIT: Formatting and added "Siddhartha")

The Little Prince is such a short wonderful book. I mean i don't even think its for kids.

Not OP, but for me the biggest boon to my reading has been the kindle for a variety of reasons:

1. If I'm not into a book, I wont force it, I can just jump to a new one.

2. 1-click downloads, if something sounds good I can just send a sample to the kindle. If it really sounds good I'll just buy it.

3. Portability, it's always in my bag and the charge lasts weeks.

I get book recommendations from Hacker News reading lists, podcasts, and friends. Then just download the sample.

I used to walk into the library on my way home and just look at covers and spines until I had 5 or so books that literally looked interesting. I gave each book a chapter of reading before deciding to finish it or not.

Don't judge a book by a cover, but do have some curiosity.

Definitely. I go to the local bookstore once a week to check new releases/acquisitions. I've found it nice to check the cover/title and, if it catches my eye, read more about it or try a chapter. Found some really good stuff I'd've never read otherwise that way. This mostly works for non-fiction, though I've found it great for fantasy novels as well. I usually take a picture then go see if anyone I trust on Goodreads has read it, or if the library has it.

If you insert what you've read at Goodreads it uses algorithms to figure out what you may like. If you add books there on your todo list you'll never run out of material. Or add some programming books.

If you're not a big reader then try the Harry Potter series. Although they are aimed at kids there is a lot of depth in them with the bonus they are easy to read and also quite gripping.

Similar story, in my 20s though. Went from 1-2 books a year (three years ago) to 48 this year (on track for 55). I too wish I discovered this earlier. There is so much to read about and the density of high-quality information in a book is unmatched.

>density of high-quality information in a book is unmatched.

Do you not get tired from this?

Books I read 3 years ago are typically purged from memory by now. What remains are understandings and intuitions on a topic, which have value, but sometimes I wonder if the time is always well spent.

I keep a log, just a simple text file, where I spend 5 minutes to 30 minutes after I finish a book to write my thoughts on it. Title + Author + 7/10 (or whatever) overall rating and a few paragraphs.

The log might mention how I came to the book, what the big themes were, and for non-fiction, I write down the page number of important points that I might care to reference later.

I love the physical books in my library because I can easily see the titles and I can turn to them easily when I need to jog my memory.

This might be really weird but when I have a tough question, I like to think about what my favorite authors in my library might say, and I'll take the book out and flip through the pages, looking for their thoughts on the subject. When I spend hours reading a book, I internalize that author's voice, beliefs, and thought process. I don't need to remember all the tiny details but I remember their thought process which I consider priceless. I was going through a book called Seeking Wisdom: From Darwin to Munger and they have pages of questions to ask in the back and I realized I was automatically asking all of them on a daily basis. I had internalized that thinking.

I like to read the same book over and over if it's really good. It's like how people get encyclopedic knowledge about star wars

I get more tired having to piece together the world on a topic via the Internet when no book exists (or I don't know one).

Just because the density is better doesn't mean every book is dense.

In terms of memory, I keep notes and titles in Goodreads. Over time I may use a more durable store but I enjoy Goodreads.

Even though you can't recall things you've read on command relevant things are very likely to surface in the context of a discussion or reading something similar. The brain does a lot of this hide 'n seek stuff on you when you're not paying attention.

Paul Graham's thoughts on this, if you haven't seen it: http://www.paulgraham.com/know.html

I don't know if I agree. It just seemed relevant.

Can you briefly list what improvements you have observed because of more reading?

For sure I sleep better when I spend 1 hour reading before sleeping than when I watch a series or play a video game.

Similarly, I also discovered the joy of reading books, English in particular, quite late (I'm 36 right now). When I was younger, the only books I read were text books. My reading stats is jumping from 1-2 books a year to become 11 read books so far this year ( Mostly, self-help, business and technical ). And the weird thing is, English not my mother tongue, but still enjoy it more than my native language. Grow up and live in an environment where English is not country's official language. Found out this habit affect my brain organization massively. So, thanks to the internet and Kindle which help me accessing great books easily :D

I started 2 years ago around 32, but I did mostly audiobooks. So far I have finished about 90 books, chosen mostly by Amazon/Goodreads/Audible ratings. I take a few lines of notes for each book while listening to help me remember what the book was about later.

How did you break free from the Twitter/social media/24 hour news cycle reading to actual longer form books and novels?

My hardest challenge is getting the same attention span for reading that I had before the current internet.

How do you pick those books?

I'm not OP, but I just follow my interests. Thankfully, at least with non-fiction, they're fairly broad, so I've read academic textbooks on religion, textbooks on programming, general science books on physics (to complement my textbook knowledge) as well as anthropology, sociology and more. Just find a topic you're interested in, go to Goodreads (I like it a lot more than Amazon for searching books), and see what you can find. Or Google it, and see what trusted people in fields like/recommend. Or even people with interests that align with yours.

As for fiction, I like mostly fantasy, so will browse the shelves and look at hyped books on /r/fantasy, as well as other, lesser-known ones that sound/look interesting (I'm a proponent of looking at covers and titles to see if it seems interesting to look into deeper). I also used to follow some reviewers. For more "literary" fiction, I look mostly at what mainstream reviewers say. I found All the Light we Cannot See that way, and loved it (except for one scene I felt was just completely unnecessary to the novel). Then, perhaps, look for major authors. Umberto Eco is one that comes to mind that I'm fixing to start.

Not OP, but I've read a ~200 fiction books and ~50 nonfiction books over my life.

Usually I pick books by the following:

- If I haven't read a single book for fun, I would pick a popular fiction or nonfiction book. Its a good starting point. Things like "Top 10 books in X category" from goodreads are good examples, or "r/askreddit favorite books"

- After reading 5-10 different books, I'll get a feel for what I like and don't like. I'll search "site:reddit.com similar books to X" and grab recommendations. Compare these to amazon's bestsellers and goodreads.

- For nonfiction books, I generally am more picky. I usually have a list of people I follow, some write reviews on books they read. I have had a few people I respect read "Ego is the Enemy" so I picked that up recently, and its something I struggle with sometimes so it's ideal for me. Nonfiction books are most powerful when you read it at the right time

- For nonfiction more textbook-like books, or something more informational, I usually let reddit / goodreads /hackernews decide what's good and what's not.

I started to read less fiction now, I've seen the same plot rehashed too many times. Nonfiction books are interesting to me at the moment.

I guess it really depends what you want to get out of your book. Do you want escapism, inspiration, or change?

I go by intuition. Lots of the time I find books to read when lost in the wiki crawl

How did you get past the existential crisis that reading a book does nothing but while way time on a task that accomplished little when viewed over a period greater than a month? For example, rather than reading a book, you could have made something. You could have learned a new skill. Gone somewhere and improved someone’s life like taking trash out at the soup kitchen. All the while you know that there is a high likelihood you’ll forget key plot points within that same month.

Even if you're talking about reading the most vapid genre fiction here, you still looking at things from the view that the purpose of everyone's life is to always be moving forward, progressing, building, achieving, getting better. Some people's feeling of purpose is different; look at Epicureanism for instance.

It sounds like you're stuck in the mindset that every moment not spent actively achieving something is time wasted. That can be a stressful way to live. Maybe if you're really looking to "get past the existential crisis" as you say, and you want to read books but feel like you shouldn't, it might be worth thinking about what you really want out of life as a whole. But I understand that it can be hard to rationalize, because our time on Earth is so limited.

Maybe you could compromise and only read books that teach something. Even good fiction teaches you about people and different ways of thinking.

Perhaps you're stuck on a BART train, and there's nothing much better to do?

That’s fair. I do wonder if just smiling and making eye contact would be a better time. The ability to provide a modicum of human kindness might be refreshing; just a small token of humanity without the selfishness of personal media.

> I do wonder if just smiling and making eye contact would be a better time

No, it would not. This is a good way to look extremely creepy and make everyone around you uncomfortable.

Just looking out the window with the occasional head nod is creepy?

Trying to make eye contact with and smile at strangers on BART definitely is.

Thanks for the info. Yet another reason to not go back to California.

I haven't been on any public transit where this would be seen as normal. I'm very curious in what region smiling at randos during a commute is typical.

Yes. One should never smile - very much not a human thing to do. Thanks, twtw.

And yet this happens all the time on Indian trains!

Smile replaced with head bobble :)

Do you ever game? Or watch TV? Or do anything at all for entertainment?

Learning IS brain transformation. Essentially by definition. Also, lack of exposure to novel intense experience actively prevents brain development because it prevents learning. This will be a growing problem as adolescents in particular lead lives which are designed to eliminate all novel stimulus and thwart every natural inclination to seek novelty. It's certainly encouraging news to see that the dropoff in neuroplasticity that comes later might be caused by the dead boring lives of industrialized adults rather than any insurmountable biological hurdle. At least, that's what I get out of this.

but how do you know that the crazy distractions of the modern world aren't growing adolescent brains in ways yours will never grow?

Throughout history adults have always looked down on children, yet the upcoming generation always ends up surpassing their parents achievements.

This reminds me of something Socrates said, over 2 millenia ago:

“The children now love luxury; they have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for elders and love chatter in place of exercise. Children are now tyrants, not the servants of their households. They no longer rise when elders enter the room. They contradict their parents, chatter before company, gobble up dainties at the table, cross their legs, and tyrannize their teachers.”

The alleged Socrates quote is a mutation of some quotes in a dissertation published in 1907 where the author was summarizing common complaints about children in ancient times (src: https://quoteinvestigator.com/2010/05/01/misbehave/ ).

"yet the upcoming generation always ends up surpassing their parents achievements"

What do you consider "surpassing their parents achievements"? Sure we may be continuing the technical progress of their generation (i.e., picking up where they left off to go retire), but who's to say that given a greater lifespan, they wouldn't go on to achieve what we have?

If I spent 30 years of my life developing principles of some new science, and the next generation uses these principles to make life better, are they surpassing my achievements?

> Throughout history adults have always looked down on children, yet the upcoming generation always ends up surpassing their parents achievements.

So far. There is some evidence that IQ has actually peaked.

Some studies suggest a highly distracted, unfocused mind is actually measurably worse at important tasks:


Problem: it hasn't done so in the US, which is the epicenter for the distracted, unfocused lifestyle.

They should surpass us, they're stood on our shoulders after all.

Very elegantly put.

I wonder if a similar change would occur in the brains of native English speakers who learn Chinese or Japanese as adults? After all, it's a whole new way set of very different characters to learn and decode.

It may be that once the big shift has occurred when you learned to read your native language, it will never happen again, as you now have the "firmware" to read anything.

Learning Japanese at the age of 30 definitely bent my brain in new and interesting ways. Certainly when communicating, it made me realize how much of speaking is actually stringing together groups of words to convey meaning and way less about using some perfect syntax or grammar. The whole backwards grammar relative to English also was pretty new and challenging.

As a native English speaker currently learning Japanese I love just how logical it all is. I'm not sure if it's because I'm from a software development background but I'm finding it so easy to learn.

As you suggested in your comment, it's a whole different way of thinking.

I suspect that all written languages have more or less the same impact on our brains. It doesn't matter how ideas are expressed, just that they are expressed. Being able to represent abstract ideas as symbols makes reasoning about them possible in a way that you can never do with spoken language.

I wonder what the effects will be of learning to read a "new" language, in addition to ones that we already know. Would that result in detectable changes?

Would the type of "new" language matter? Say, Someone who knows English, learning to read French, v/s the same person learning to read Mandarin, which has a very different structure?

I enjoy reading, but I've always struggled with it, particularly with larger, slower-paced, and more complex books (though it's never stopped me). I suspect I have pretty strong aphantasia [1] and so I never build mental images of the characters or their scenes, rather I only remember abstract descriptors about everything. I find that this makes it hard for me to follow storylines and in particular multiple story arcs in multiple different locations or timeframes. I think that this does impact the level of joy I get from reading, and envy those who get a rich tapestry of mental images from the stories.

I found, for example, Matthew Reilly's Ice Station a relatively easy story when I read it as a teen because the pace was high and the action was contained to a relatively simple scene. On the other hand, I'm reading Neal Stephenson's Quicksilver right now and I'm really struggling to follow the story arcs because it jumps all over the place with its characters, scenes and timeframes. The fact I'm already familiar with most of the characters' names helps some of it stick, but I'm resigned to most of the secondary Royal Society characters being a generic conglomeration of traits and just treat them as a supporting cast without defined personalities in a lot of ways.

I find that I also very quickly forget the contents of novels I read. I read Snow Crash about 5-8 years ago and then again earlier this year, and I barely remembered any of it. Certainly I think more stuck the second time, but it was still mostly new to me (e.g. the character concepts and biggest plot points kind of stuck, but nothing more).

I sort of hope that reading can help me improve with my memory, but it hasn't in about 25 years of reading (I'm in my early 30s) so I don't hold particularly high hopes. I do wonder whether the aphantasia would've been even worse had I not read so much when growing up, but maybe if it hasn't noticeably improved in my life then equivalently it would never have been any worse had I not read. I wonder if my brain in some ways reflects an illiterate person in the visual cortex areas?

On the other hand, reading is undoubtedly the reason my vocabulary and spelling is as good as it is. Certainly, it's is a very valuable skill and I am glad that I continued to engage it since I learned to read as a child.

[1]: https://www.facebook.com/notes/blake-ross/aphantasia-how-it-...

That's interesting about aphantasia. I knew some people have incredible visualization ability far past the normal amount, but I never knew that some people have none at all.

I think my visualization ability is about average, although I do very well with visual thinking. Not sure what the correlation is there.

I've been a prolific reader since about 11 years old. I would say that in general, I don't try to visualize what the author writes. Whenever the author spends a lot of time going into setting up the environment with lots of visual details, I only lightly skim that. I don't bother trying to visualize exactly what the author is trying to convey.

So sometimes it does lead to a little bit of confusion later on in the story if something I read doesn't match up with my made up visualization, but generally I might only get a blip of confusion a few times during a book, it doesn't really amount to much or affect my enjoyment.

I'm not sure how much time Neal Stephenson spends on visual details in Snow Crash, but I remember the first 200 pages of Anathem being a chore to get through because of the incredible amount of time he spent on setting up the environment. Because I largely skipped the visual details in Anathem, there were parts later on in the story that were confusing due to the fact I didn't have a grasp on the layout of the monastery and such. Assuming he didn't make mistakes at any point.

I catch myself skimming over details like that too, because they are essentially meaningless to me. That said, I've never had the situtaion of a mental image being wrong, because I never end up actually drawing one. I just end up getting lost, like I'm constantly encountering new scenes that haven't been described to me. It's disorienting but now I've come to adapt to it, I know that I'll not necessarily follow details I would otherwise expect myself to follow, not because it's badly written (as I used to sometimes wonder) but that it just doesn't gel in my mind. So I've come to adapt to that, in a ways.

Nice point about the light skimming of largely irrelevant details; I do that too and also suffer some mild but acceptable confusion later in a work...

It also depends how engaged a book has me. Sometimes books are about the story and those details don’t matter. Other times they are more like paintings and time spent engrossed in smaller details does reveal a deeper level of enjoyment to the reader.

Huh. TIL. I wonder if that applies to me too, though maybe in more of a sliding scale way. At best I can almost kinda maybe visualize things in very small flashes, but it's basically never what I'd consider visual / auditory / etc. I just kinda "know" what I'm thinking of, and that's the end of it.

I'm like that too, I think. I would hesitate to call it "seeing" things. Something like counting sheep actually causing a visual experience (in color!) just does not compute.

It's frustrating, because I've been wanting to learn how to draw, and now it seems like there should be something in my mind that I could try to put on paper? Would certainly make things easier

If I close my eyes, all I experience is blackness. Is that not true for most people?

I don't think I'm completely incapable of using this superpower; I can recall two instances where I've experienced an actual vivid in-colour visual hallucination while sleeping. Both times completely blew my mind but I woke up so they didn't last, I can't figure out how to trigger them again. :/

Drawing is something I'm absolutely awful at. I was talking to some friends about it a month ago. They draw very well and they very much picture a mental image, then essentially translate that. They can conjure up images out of their minds, hold them there and draw each detail.

Meanwhile, if I'm not literally line-tracing, I'm woeful at it (like, stick-figure level bad). I can't even directly look at something and translate it, though that may be due to my general lack of practice.

Regarding dreaming, I know I've dreamt maybe 3 times a year? When I'm in very light sleep and drifting in and out of it. Within seconds of waking up, I've lost it however, so I never remember my dreams, just knowing that I did in fact have dreams happening. For the other 360 days, I'm essentailly closing my eyes to a void and then teleporting to the next morning.

fwiw I've done fine as an art minor, and one of the first things you learn is to stop doing things by memory, and do it by vision :) I'm not sure it's really necessary.

Well, yeah, I'm aware of that, but it still boggles the mind that there'd be something visual in people's memory to actually reference while drawing, other than things like "there's supposed to be muscle here and some bones there, and gravity will affect the hair". ie. facts about structure. I don't know, perhaps I could put together a drawing just by assembling such facts and trying to figure out what to put on paper to represent them.

It's really hard to describe how I feel about it. I can't know how other people perceive the world, so I might be misunderstanding the whole thing, but for the longest time I though "imagination" was metaphorical, but lately I've been wondering that it might not be.

As I said in my earlier comment, I do get these feelings that might be "seeing" something inside my head sometimes, but the feeling is so indistinct that I can't call it constructing images in my mind; I've been trying to figure out how to make my brain do it better, but it's difficult.

It never really occurred to me how utterly foreign reading was. I guess it makes sense because, like the article mentions, it's such a recent innovation that a dedicated region hasn't yet evolved in us. I never thought about the actual deep changes in the brain that must happen when learning.

When I read a book, I'm often totally transported into that world. I wonder if areas of my brain invoved with vivid dreaming are being activated when I am in this state.

two of the main things people use to enter a lucid dreaming state (becoming aware that you're dreaming while you are asleep) are switching a light bulb on and off and the other is to read some text. both are fairly new things to our brains.

the light bulb one is easy enough. you just have to flick a switch every time you walk past one (this is during the day while you're awake) and then eventually you will remember to do it in your dream. when the light doesn't switch off in your dream, thats when your conscious mind will hopefully notice and you can start to take control over the dream

its a bit harder to do the same with words. when you find some in your dream, you have to focus on a few of them and try to memorise them, (which isn't easy when your mind is in that state) then look away for a few seconds and then look back and see if they are still the same.

ive only ever managed to test that out once myself but after a while the words started to change and others disappeared which made me snap out of it and realise i was in a dream.

tl;dr wordz is new init?

This is interesting to me, because I'm an avid reader in real life and usually lucid dream (though I don't train myself to). Most dreams to a degree feel like fiction to me and they're enjoyable in the same way reading a good book is, except better, since they're about me. I have never linked this to my reading before.

One of the other common checks is to look at your hands though. Those definitely aren't new

(I did that once, and iirc I had 2 fingers on one hand and 7 on the other? Or something like that)

>”These deep structures in the thalamus and brainstem help our visual cortex to filter important information from the flood of visual input even before we consciously perceive it.” Interestingly, it seems that the more the signal timings between the two brain regions are aligned, the better the reading capabilities. “We, therefore, believe that these brain systems increasingly fine-tune their communication as learners become more and more proficient in reading,” the neuroscientist explains further. “This could explain why experienced readers navigate more efficiently through a text.”

I read the headline and instantly wondered if the same result occurs as we age and continue to fine tune our reading skills. The above passage seems to confirm the age old saying of reading keeping the mind active. One thing I am wondering though is if there is a certain types of literature that the brains reacts in a more positive or less than observation way. For example, does our brain engage more when we’re reading a technical literature review moreso than if it was a novel? Or vice versa. Is this why professionals—lawyers are the main ones i can think of—who comb through hundreds of dense reading weekly get viewed as achieving such a masters ability in reading?

Anecdotally, I relearned[0] to read and write in Arabic in 2016. When I started I could just recognize some letters off-hand and when I stopped I had the reading ability of a six year old[1]. I excelled quite rapidly and it's coincidentally tied to a time of intense emotional and intellectual development for me.

Even my skills in programming have doubled or tripled during that time. To the point where the then-CTO of the company picked it and brought it up. I went out and doubled my salary and job responsibilities a year later.

I'm not sure if it's related to the reading, or if the reading was a side-effect of it, but I thought I'd share.

[0] I attended a weekly class for several months when I was 8 but we didn't get through half of a first grade book.

[1] Although I can make out the letters and can write pretty good too, it takes me longer than usual and I usually can't make sense of 60% of what I'm reading because written Arabic is in the very formal MSA and I'm only familiar with a regional dialect. A comparison to this would be someone who's only familiar with NY-borough slang trying to make sense of Shakespeare.

how did you re-learn to read? I am ethnically chinese and have long been meaning to (re?)-acquire the mother tongue.

I imagine Chinese would be a lot harder. With Arabic, it's a total of 28 letters with more or less 3 different wants of writing them, giving a total of 84 possible glyphs. On top of this there are various accents that can be placed on every letter. In essence, it's not that much more complicated than some sort of Latin alphabet (i.e Spanish or Italian).

The process I used was to learn a new letter everyday (with its three combinations) then found a local Lebanese church that had Arabic classes and joined up.

I was a lot better than everyone else, because I went in with prior knowledge, so I was always at least several lessons ahead which allowed me to utilise my time with the teacher to ask questions on specific things rather than just trying to keep up with the core coursework.

> does our brain engage more when we’re reading a technical literature review moreso than if it was a novel

I'm sure it does, but moreso I think that it might be more a function of the actual style of language used than it is of the subject matter. For example, if you read any literature from a century ago, you'll likely notice that what we now call run-on sentences are used all over the place. These sentences have a parsing tree that is far deeper and more self-referential than modern authors use, and so in turn likely engages the brain more than a simpler sentence structure would. Of course, this has negative connotations as far as clear communication goes, but it's a good exercise to spend a few weeks reading this kind of material - it definitely becomes noticeably more readable after more exposure.

You'll also likely be familiar with the way that newspaper articles (particularly in tabloids and local rags) have dropped their reading grade-level standards and are using simpler linguistic constructions to help ensure their audience understands. There's probably a bit of a negative feedback loop in there somewhere.

It is also true in older literature that writers were paid by the number of words and naturally you'd get a very descriptive styles, lots and lots and lots of details

No, that's not true everywhere. See Djuna Barnes for example.

As long as you make new neural connections your brain is going to grow[0]. An anecdotal fact which I heard many years ago was that adding a new perspective to look at something is like increasing your IQ by 10-20 points. Simply reading a lot of text within your comfort zone is not going to increase your mental capacity.


> An anecdotal fact which I heard many years ago was that adding a new perspective to look at something is like increasing your IQ by 10-20 points

I'd be skeptical about that. A few years ago there was this craze about increasing working memory and thus IQ using the dual-n-back game (advertised as the only game that has transference to unrelated tasks). Turned out to be a placebo. People have been dreaming about increasing their IQs and from time to time fall to various fads. Until there is strong scientific evidence, these 'IQ boosters' should not be taken seriously.

I wonder if learning to play music later in life has similar effects. I have read that music, if learned young in life — by age 12 or so, actually produces physical changes in the brain.

That's the first thing I wondered as well since I'm currently trying (and mostly failing) to learn how to play my guitar.

I also wonder what the limits to learning are. At some point, if I learn something new, does pushing that knowledge into my long-term store replace or weaken an existing memory?

I think of it as a time-decay function. There are only so many attentive, focused hours one can give during a day, and a memory only lasts so long before it decays from disuse. Some amount of area under this curve represents what a person can functionally retain. It isn't a fixed amount, as more connections between subjects tends to reinforce both, but there is a limit.

1) Neurogenesis halts in your early 20s. After that, no new neurons for you, sorry. Although the connections may change.

2) "Point of view is worth 80 IQ points" is actually one of Alan Kay's famous quips.

> 1) Neurogenesis halts in your early 20s. After that, no new neurons for you, sorry. Although the connections may change.

This statement as written is almost total nonsense. A cursory internet search yields abundant studies on adult neurogenesis. Even small amounts of cardiovascular exercise increase brain volume, stimulate neural growth, and create synaptic connections in adults well into old age.

At best, one could claim that neuron growth slows as we age, but it absolutely doesn't halt.

And yet when Arturo Alvarez-Buylla and his team of researchers actually searched for physical evidence of young neurons in adult brains, they found... nothing: https://www.nature.com/articles/nature25975

The studies which came before may be based on nonprimate animal models in which adult neurogenesis does occur. But the best evidence we have to date suggests that adult humans do not grow new neurons.

That article you linked to is about neurogenesis in hippocampus only.

1) Can you please cite sources to this? Here is one (of many found) negating this statement. [0]


> One thing I am wondering though is if there is a certain types of literature that the brains reacts in a more positive or less than observation way. For example, does our brain engage more when we’re reading a technical literature review moreso than if it was a novel?

I've often wondered this also. It would be interesting to quantitatively determine the effects of reading fiction versus non-fiction material on the mind.

Intuitively it would make sense to me that they both provide advantages to the mind. Certainly, being able to parse dense technical literature is impressive, but the ability to use the imagination and think creatively would probably use different parts of the mind, and I'd think the "best" minds could do both.

Wasn't it said that Einstein kind of came up with the whole idea about relativity based on the imagined idea of "riding" a beam of light or something like that?

I highly recommend Richard Feynman's talk [0] on imagining physics from the BBC series "Fun to Imagine":

"In the case of science, I think that one of the things that make it difficult is that it takes a lot of imagination. It's very hard to imagine all the crazy things that things really are like."

[0]: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4zZbX_9ru9U

I believe any current studies focused mostly on brain engagements on screen vs book. We know that there are studies that indicate that reading fiction engages the brain in such a way that it is speculated a given reader literally experiences the fiction as if it were real life.

Is there a difference between vertically and horizontally written languages, given that the left field of view of each eye are processed in the same half of the brain, and the right half of FOV processed in the other half of the brain?

For horizontal languages like say english, the most relevant words are to the left and right of the current word, so left context and right context are initially in different halves of the brain.

For vertical languages relevant symbols are above and below the currently observed symbol, so if there is overlap of right and left FOV then both halves have the full context, if no overlap then both halves get the full context but only partially each symbol...

Does this matter in practice? We have binocular vision--when I read, I focus on a word with both eyes. The occasions where I'm reading with just one eye or another are fairly rare.

The structural and functional division isn't between the eyes; it is present in both eyes.


So if we are reading horizontally, the not-yet seen text is in a portion of the field of vision of both eyes that is routed to one brain hemisphere; the text already scanned is in the opposite field of vision going to the other hemisphere.

The field of vision split is right down the middle of each eye. One side of the brain gets the two left-halves, the other the right. FWIW. Oliver Sacks' The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat has a chapter on hemispatial neglect which is an interesting read.

(The entire book is fascinating.)


Try as I might, I can't find details about the field of vision split. Like how perfectly vertical and straight is the division? What is the microscopic structure like: how crisp is the line at the cellular level? Is there some messiness at the boundary with regard to which hemisphere the cones and rods are routed to? Does the division run precisely through the middle of the fovea?

This paper should help. :)


Empirically, when running tests where you wanted a clear hemisphere separation, we always used between one and two degrees off the centerline axis. This was undergrad cog sci in the 90's, so take it for what you will.

Thanks. I see from the side bar have been hitting this site. Let's see, recently viewed items:

"Poppy seeds: differences in morphine and codeine content and variation ..."

"Spectrum of human tails: A report of six cases ..."

"Spontaneous knotting of an agitated string ..."


Light is detected at each retina separately, and undegoes some processing in the retina. The optic nerve transmits that information to the thalamus (lateral geniculate nucleus). The lateral geniculate nucleus of the thalamus (LGN) is organized by visual field; the left thalamus receives information from both eyes about the right half of the visual field. Some cats died at the hands of Hubel and Wiesel to give you this information; AFAIK it was not studied by the national socialists in their grusome human experiments.

On the original question, neglect dyslexia can be caused by disturbance in one cortical hemisphere.

Interesting. I wonder if readers of vertically written languages are less (or maybe more) prone to dyslexia?

"What researchers have learned so far is that writing systems vary extensively not only in their visual appearance (e.g., alphabetic vs. logographic and visual complexity) but also in many other factors such as orthographic depth and morphological complexity (the latter not discussed in the current article). Prevalence rates of dyslexia may vary somewhat across writing systems, perhaps influenced by these differences. It is important to note, however, that prevalence rate is highly sensitive to the criteria used to define dyslexia; some research groups have found essentially identical prevalence rates regardless of orthographic depth, depending on the criteria used. We have also learned that, despite these more ‘superficial’ differences, there seems to be a fundamental universal principle that dictates reading networks in different writing systems that is consistent with the goal of reading (i.e., to convey meaning). Finally, in terms of dyslexia, there appears to be a core dysfunction present across writing systems that reflects the phonological deficit hypothesis and may be driven by more subtle sensory processing deficits (Goswami, 2015). This would also make sense given the high heritability estimates of the disorder (Grigorenko, 2004)."

"The Myths and Truths of Dyslexia in Different Writing Systems"


my recollection from cognitive linguistics, years ago, was that the dyslexia rate is affected by the complexity of mapping symbols to sounds. italian speakers had a lower rate than english speakers, for instance.

i haven't read this in its entirety, but it discusses things a bit and has a sizable bibliography: https://dyslexiaida.org/the-myths-and-truths-of-dyslexia/

>reading is such a new ability in human evolutionary history

As I understand it, only about 2% of our species' history.

But I would give anything to know if there are undiscovered enormous innovations on that level and if so, what they are.

As of 2017, we're generating more data each year than we previously generated in the entirety of human history. Although comparing refrigerator's IP addresses to the Iliad may not be a fair comparison.

It makes sense. Unlike speaking, reading is something we don't just learn naturally, yet it completely changes the way you see the world. When you see some written language you can't not read it.

I do wonder, though. Do humans with no written language still understand that writing contains information, or does it just look like noise to them?

I'm curious how much of the benefits accrue if you use audio books - which is how I do much of my "reading".

Do you primarily listen to audiobooks while you're doing something else?

Audiobooks are the easiest "multitasking" I think. A great example is while driving. This weekend I listened to 2312 by Kim Stanley Robinson while driving. I also listen while gardening or cleaning. Really only works for tasks with really low cognitive load.

(not above commenter) I've started listening to audio books during cardio workouts.

To me, the experience is a bit less involved than reading. A good narrator can paint quite the picture with intonation, emphasis, ...

I find it is still a way more involved and active experience then, eg, watching a movie or TV show. I still imagine the scenery in my mind, think about the characters motivations, ...

With a busy schedule, it is a great compromise, I think.

Seeing how this research is done with syllabic scripts, it might be worthwhile to have the same repeated with alphabetic and hieroglyphic scripts and see if any interesting results can be gleaned, like something equivalent to Sapir-Whorf hypothesis.

Edit: Grammar

I've once started learning Tibetan and felt like on some powerful nootropics during the days. Perhaps that's the effect and it can possibly happen to literate people if they learn a language that is very different to their mother tongue and uses a really different script.

That's an interesting sample point. Lets hope research can shed more light on this.

> “While it is quite difficult for us to learn a new language, it appears to be much easier for us to learn to read.

Sometimes the writing system of your own language can be formidably difficult, on par with learning a foreign language, if not harder.

Can confirm - after many years of study I’m finally at the point where my spoken Mandarin is passable, but dear lord the written language is tough...

I wonder what (if any) effect do graphic novels or hieroglyphics have in the brain. Do they change the brain structure fundamentally like this too?

I wish I could actually learn to read... I mean faster than average (I read more slow than average actually) while still getting everything.

I read very slow too. Nothing really helped so I decided to just ignore it. It doesn't really affect my life except I can't read subtitles (they change much faster than I can read). I can read books just fine, except a few times slower than normal people. This also didn't affect my academic performance. It's an unfortunate situation nevertheless.

I've noticed that since I've started reading books for fun, that understanding technical information is easier.

What if I only read buzzfeed. Is there a scientific study for that?

That's a different type of reading, you don't immerse sufficiently enough into lecture to get anything other than information from it. Deep reading requires you to spend time with one long read at a time.

Yes, and you'll never guess these top 10 crazy results!

Scientists hate him!

When does everyone prefer to read ?

All the time, to be honest. I find myself reading way too much at work, instead of doing other things (grading papers, proctoring a test efficiently, etc.) I read at home, at the gym (and sometimes skimp on running to do inclined treadmill or bike just so I can read) and even when I'm in a car with others driving. Hell, I read during a board game meetup the other day (it was at a bookstore!) because I was close to finishing one (yes, I do realize how rude it was, and didn't read except while waiting to start up a new game).

I read at night mostly though, and it's a nice way to wind down before bed. During the summer, while I'm off, I'll also walk and read as well. I generally don't tend to pass of social events to read, though (boardgame night was an exception because I had, like, 20 pages left), so that cuts me down some.

On the bus, in my case. Sometimes I'll go to a coffee shop.


Two of the three comments that this new account has made includes a shortened Amazon URL that expands into a URL with the referral ID of "amazonbook10-20".

Let's keep spam off HN.

Btw, reusing Amazon referral IDs across the internet links all of your accounts.

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