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Reading – an exercise workout for the brain

 

Yesterday I had what on paper would sound like a tough gig: give a talk to Y9 girls and boys about reading and the brain and why they should do more reading for pleasure. This was an online event for one of my favourite schools, Epsom College. Lucky it was online, otherwise I’d have had to cancel, as my husband has Covid. Plus, the train strike… Thank goodness for technology!

Anyway, why tough, I (don’t) hear you say? Because generally speaking, Year 9 students really don’t want some random stranger lecturing them about reading more books. Tbh, Year 9s don’t really want anyone lecturing them about anything.

According to two members of staff, I played a blinder. And they were certainly listening brilliantly.

I showed them how physical activity and reading for pleasure are linked in the brain, how R4P basically IS an exercise workout for the brain, how it uses more parts of the brain than almost any other activity (including, actually, physical activity) and how by spending more time on both things they give themselves the best chance of building the best body AND brain, together. I probably talked about physical exercise as much as I talked about reading.

I showed them how many of the benefits the brain gets from physical activity are the same ones you get from reading.

 

I discussed how we would motivate ourselves to do anything that we knew was a good idea but we didn’t really want to do. I pointed out that some of them loved physical activity but not reading and others loved reading but not activity and others loved both and others loved neither. But we all want to do a good job for our brains and bodies – and have pleasure. So, how do we do this?

I explained my four step way to motivation:

  1. Believe that there’s a point, that there’s something in it for you
  2. Work out what you do and don’t like about the activity so that you can find things you like or could like or at least not dislike
  3. Make time for it, at least three times a week, ideally at the same time – this creates a habit
  4. Notice and acknowledge how good it makes you feel
This is not me running

I told them how I used this knowledge to became a runner after being someone who hates most exercise. (I now run 100km a month. Last month I did that in 10 runs.)

  1. I believed exercise would give me something: that I would be fitter and healthier, that my blood pressure and heart rate would improve and my cholesterol would fall and I would feel good about myself
  2. I worked out that I don’t like team games or competition; I like exercising alone; and I needed it to be quick (so no going all the way to a gym or swimming pool) – so I chose running
  3. I did the couch to 5k programme, which asks you to run three times a week – that became a routine
  4. I noticed the benefits – all the ones I’d expected, including lower blood pressure etc; and I lost weight; mostly I felt very proud

BUT, then I pointed out that there’s a big mistake in all that:

People of all ages generally don’t respond very well to being told that something will have benefits in the distant future. This is where motivation theory comes in. I showed them how our prefrontal cortex is all about calculating longterm benefits while our Limbic system is all about benefits NOW (chiefly, feeling GREAT) and that in most people most of the time the Limbic system is dominant.

So, when we want to be motivated to do something that we know is “good for us” we need to stop thinking so much about “good for us” and focus on how great it will make us feel NOW.

This means that with my running motivation, the real motivator is that it makes me feel good NOW. (Well, OK not exactly while I’m running, but immediately afterwards and for the rest of the day.)

And with reading, we have to focus on benefits that we might notice NOW or very SOON.

For example:

  • Feeling excited
  • Having a laugh
  • Feeling really emotional – but in a safe way
  • Learning something interesting or useful
  • Feeling good about myself
  • Relaxing, switching off from worries
  • Having peace in my busy day
  • Falling asleep quickly at night

Reading is like strawberries, not spinach.

Obviously, that’s just the bare bones of it but it was a simple message, packed with fascinating science – gosh, I just LOVE sharing the understanding of how our brains work! The librarian has asked to use the recording to support some CPD for librarian colleagues, which is a great idea.

Here are some resources for you, including the Summer Holiday reading Pledge for families, schools and individuals.

Would you like me to talk to your audience?

I’m doing very very few in-person events now (I’m writing two books so I need to keep time for that!) but I do excellent online ones. It’s just as engaging, to be frank, but the fee is lower and you don’t have to pay my travel or entertain me. And the sound engineer said I had the best mic he’d seen!

Book me for a fascinating, in-depth training session for librarians or whole-school staff, revealing fascinating insights into what reading does in our brain and, crucially, how to build a reading ethos in a school and amongst individuals. Hurry! I don’t have many vacancies this year – but I have lots next year. Why not join with other schools? Organising a conference? I’m your woman! I’ve done this a lot and conferences and INSET sessions are my favourite thing. Well, apart from drinking a glass of chilled white wine while podding peas from my garden. But I could do your talk first…

Check out my speaking page and contact me from there.

 

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