How Words Build and Strengthen Your Brain Over Your LifeWords help build and maintain a healthy brain throughout a person’s life. Beginning at birth, words aid the development of a baby’s brain. As a brain grows, writing and reading help a brain mature to function optimally. And in the later years, reading words is a proven way to exercise an aging brain and help keep it sharp.

How Words Build a Baby’s Brain

A human baby is born with an astronomical amount of neurons — somewhere around 100 billion. However, they’re not all connected yet. Like other  mammals, our brains come “assembly required.”  The human brain is similar to a super deluxe Lego building set with billions of itty bitty pieces.  Everything needed to build something pretty amazing is provided, but it’s going to take a lot of time and effort to put it together optimally.

As little people grow, interact with others, and explore the world, connections are wired in their brains based on their experiences. Their lives sculpt their brains. This ability of the brain to change form and function based on incoming stimuli is called neuroplasticity.

Words Build a Baby’s Brain

Studies have shown that babies need something besides the latest stroller, interactive toy, or car seat to get a good start on their intellectual, emotional, and physical development. They need words — songs, nursery rhymes, chitchat, books, and bedtime stories. All that cooing and babbling you do around a baby isn’t frivolous or silly after all. It’s building their brain.

Talking to a baby doesn’t just encourage language development. It is essential to their brain development overall. Every time a caregiver has a positive, engaging verbal interaction with a child, neural connections are strengthened in their rapidly growing brain. Words coming from a radio, television, or someone talking on a cellphone proved to be of no benefit to researchers.

The 30-Million-Word Gap

Studies at Rice and Columbia Universities found that during the first four years of life, a child from a lower-income household hears roughly 30 million fewer words, less than a third, than their more affluent peers. This word gap grows as the child does.

In addition to a lack of exposure to words overall, the words a child from a low-income family hears are often negative directives or words of discouragement. According to one study, the average child from a family on welfare hears 125,000 more words of discouragement than encouragement by the age of four. In comparison, a child from a high-income family will have heard 560,000 more words of praise than discouragement.

Regardless of income, the solution is simple: talking. Eliminating the 30-million-word gap requires early intervention and is the focus of various government programs and The Thirty Million Words Initiative. You can learn simple ways to help the preschoolers in your life here.

The Young Adult Brain Needs to Write Words not Type

Studies with hundreds of college students at Princeton and UCLA showed that students who relied on their laptops for note-taking wrote down lengthier and more comprehensive notes. However, the students who put pen to paper had a better conceptual understanding of the material when tested. The pen-to-paper students retained, applied, and integrated the material covered more successfully.

Taking notes by hand requires different cognitive processing than typing notes on a laptop which has implications for learning. Writing down notes with pen and paper is slower and takes more mental effort than typing. Because of this, students who write their notes by hand aren’t able to write down every word verbatim. Instead, they have to interpret and summarize the information in their own words. Writing by hand forces the brain to actively process information and engage in some mental exercise promoting comprehension and retention.

How Words Build and Strengthen Your Brain Over Your Life

In the Ears and Out the Fingers

The study concluded that laptop users were merely transcribing without giving much thought to the content or processing its meaning. In fact, higher verbatim note-taking was associated with lower retention rates of lecture material. Students using computers could take notes in a rote fashion requiring little analysis or synthesis by the brain. Essentially, the words were going in the ears and out the fingertips. This kind of shallow transcription fails to promote meaningful understanding or application of the information.

Even when laptop users were instructed to summarize the information and put notes in their own words, they didn’t show a boost in performance on tests. In addition, when students were tested a week later and allowed to study their notes beforehand, the students who took longhand notes outperformed the computer note takers again. The researchers theorized that the student’s own words and handwriting contained memory cues recreating thought processes, emotions, and conclusions in addition to the actual content from the original lesson.

Words Can Help an Aging Brain Stay Sharp

Reading benefits any brain, and it can be like a vigorous exercise session for an elderly brain. With spoken or written words, the area of the brain handling language reception, the left temporal cortex, gets a workout. However, when you read, you have more time to pause, think, and process which makes your brain work harder. One study found that some of the brain benefits of one reading session lasted for five days.

It makes sense that a language area of the brain would get a workout during reading. Surprisingly, research found that reading also energizes a part of the brain involved in motor activity. That’s because, in your brain, there’s not much difference between actually doing something and thinking about it. You may be reading about someone running, and although you’re not actually doing it, your brain activates similarly. The more parts of your brain that are engaged, the better exercise something is for you cognitively.

Reading Improves Memory

When you read, your brain is doing a lot more than just deciphering words on a page. Reading is more neurobiologically demanding than processing images or speech. It’s a neural workout. As you read, disparate parts of your brain, such as vision, language, and associative learning, have to cooperatively work together.

According to one study, mental stimulation, such as reading, can help memory and thinking skills, especially as you age. The authors even suggest that reading every day can slow down late-life cognitive decline. In other research, reading was shown to slow the rate of memory deterioration and of decrease in other key mental capacities.

The act of reading helps to heighten overall brain function and increase memory. Scientists at the University of California, Berkeley, found that it can lower the levels of beta-amyloid, a brain protein involved in Alzheimer’s, by keeping the mind cognitively stimulated. Reading has also been linked to slowing mental decline by improving overall mental flexibility, an important component of developing and retaining memory.

Read the Classics for a Better Brain Workout

One study at Stanford University found that classic literary reading, in particular, gives your brain the ultimate workout. MRI scans of people reading classics showed more blood flow to areas of the brain involving cognitive and executive function. Paying attention to literary texts requires the coordination of multiple complex thinking processes. While more leisurely reading material had some benefits, it was in different areas of the brain and not as extensive.

Lastly, for more fun options, try playing word games like Scrabble or Wordle. These games push you to exercise your vocabulary in challenging and novel ways. To help you win and improve your vocabulary, you try tools that help you unscramble words. Over time, wordplay and such tools can help sharpen your thinking skills and make you better at word games.

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  1. Funnily enough, I prefer to write things down, especially something I want to pay attention to. And as for reading the classics, our bookshelf is full of them. Many of which I’ve read over and over, not just for the story, but for the amazing way with words these books have.

    Thanks for this interesting read Debbie.

  2. Cathy Taughinbaugh Reply

    Hi Debbie,

    Interesting comparison between families of lower income as opposed to those of a higher income, which makes sense. Unfortunately, the language disparity starts at birth. Hopefully, there are things that can help. I watch my grandson a couple of days a week and do a lot of rhymes and singing which he loves, as well as reading books often. It is fun to watch his vocabulary grow. Thank you!

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