Reading, Libraries and the Brain

Two sessions at OLA 2010 were on the topic of recent findings in brain research. I had become interested in this topic when I read a book review of The Brain That Changes Itself by Norman Doidge. The book shattered much of what I was taught in the 1980s and 1990s. There really is a revolution occurring in our understanding of the brain, and the findings are highly relevant to the discussion of the role of reading and libraries in the modern world.

The Brain That Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science (James H. Silberman Books) by Norman Doidge The Brain That Changes Itself, by Norman Doidge

Both OLA session speakers referred to this book as one of the most influential on the topic in recent years. The first presenter, Julie Mandal, spoke early Thursday morning at OLA 2010 with the session title Library Service Meets Brain Research! I noted her experience paralleled mine. She had attended an educational workshop on new findings on neuroscience and excitedly kept remarking that what she was learning spoke directly to her experiences as a research librarian helping library users. Her session dwelled on how the new findings in brain research can help us in understanding the psychology of library users.

Who are we being? This was the main question of the first part of Julie Mandal’s presentation.

Julie Mandal described how we can understand client needs as being driven by one of the two sides of a “seesaw.” When we feel threatened or anxious our brain can seesaw between “responding” or “reacting.” The prefrontal cortex responds and the limbic system reacts. If the limbic system kicks in, as happens when we are uncertain, then we think less clearly. To get out of this state we often just have to think about or talk about the problem, although ongoing negativity can last and we can develop a persistent crust of deeply ingrained reactions that are not driven by the rational thought of the prefrontal cortex.

The role then of the librarian is to get the client or co-worker out of a state of feeling threatened, when the limbic system triggers a survival response to perceived problems in the social environment. Just when people need to have all capabilities of their brain working—memory, analytical thinking, creativity, problem solving—resources are taken away from those parts of the brain by the limbic system.

To minimize the threat reaction of the limbic system we need to understand SCARF. When we have the five social needs of SCARF met our survival instinct driven by the limbic system does not kick in. The five needs are S (status), C (certainty), A (autonomy), R (relatedness), and F (fairness). The SCARF model was developed by David Rock.

Your Brain at Work: Strategies for Overcoming Distraction, Regaining Focus, and Working Smarter All Day Long by David Rock Your Brain at Work, by David Rock.
Web site for Your Brain at Work:
Original paper on SCARF:

YouTube video of David Rock describing SCARF:


When people feel their status is being diminished the threat response may kick in, with the brain releasing stress-related hormones. Even being asked “Can I give you some advice?” can make people feel defensive since a claim of superiority is implied in the question. Library patrons when they have an information need may feel their status threatened. A librarian needs to understand that patron behaviour could be driven by survival instincts. Simple remedies to the status threat include positive feedback and public acknowledgement.

The brain is always trying to predict the near future, and any kind of significant change increases uncertainty. Sometimes bringing people to a comfortable familiar place will reduce stress. In a workplace tactics that increase certainty include providing clear expectations and breaking complex projects into smaller steps with easy-to-understand deadlines.

Autonomy is the perception of having control over the environment—that choices can be made at any time. In other words, avoid micromanagement. Working in a team can also reduce one’s sense of autonomy. In a team environment asking “Here are two options that could work, which would you prefer?” gets a better response than “Here’s what you have to do now.”

People crave a sense of belonging. Organizations that encourage ‘water cooler’ conversations may have increased productivity due to the increase in social connections. Building trust is also important, since untrustworthy acts cause people to withdraw, reducing collaboration and information sharing.

A sense of unfairness can arise without clear ground rules, expectations or objectives. Increased organization transparency can go some distance in reducing perceived unfairness because sometimes the problem is just the perception of unfairness. But it is important to recognize how powerful the need for fairness is, since history is filled with people who have fought and died for causes they believed are just.

How do we connect? This was the next question in Julie Mandal’s presentation.

One of the most exciting recent discoveries in neuroscience is the mirror neuron system. When an animal acts and another animal observes it scientists found that the same neurons in the two animals can fire. The neurons in the observer fire as if the observer was doing the action.

But there’s a fascinating twist to this situation with mirror neurons. Julie Mandal related the story of a monkey who was observing a trainer. The monkey was part of an experiment and its brain was being monitored. Mirror neurons fired in the monkey’s brain when the monkey observed the trainer’s action. But on one unexpected occasion the trainer started to reach for something but actually did not have the intention to complete the reach. Somehow the monkey sensed the lack of intention and the mirror neuron did not fire. Mirror neurons have also been called empathy neurons because of this uncanny aspect.

In a library setting one can imagine scenarios when patrons detect that the reference librarian is not being genuine. The librarian may have heard a particular reference question a hundred times, but to the patron this may be the first time he or she asked the question. Librarians need to treat each interaction as genuine and not just go through the motions. Librarians need to identify opportunities for intentional actions, because if mirror neurons can detect intention, librarians can be more effective if they train themselves to focus on genuine intention. Perhaps this means more face-to-face communication, or the use of tools and methods that can help them convey intentions when answering reference questions by phone or e-mail. But responses to reference questions must be, in the first instance, genuine. When library patron reactions are understood in the light of mirror neurons, librarians may be more likely to engage in intentional actions that result in greater patron satisfaction in library service.

What do we enable? This was the last question in Julie Mandal’s presentation.

When I read The Brain That Changes Itself, it was in the findings on neuroplasticity where I saw an opportunity to advocate for the transformative benefits of library services. Neuroplasticity simply means that the brain changes when it learns something. Acting and thinking changes physical structures and functional organization in the brain, and these processes do not diminish as people age. In extreme cases, such as in people who have suffered strokes, researchers found that the brain had tremendous capacity to reorganize itself, even in the elderly. Neuroplasticity is an astonishing life-affirming and enabling concept, one that can encourage people in efforts of life-long learning.

The relationship to libraries becomes straightforward when one sees that reading and life-long learning, the two principle offerings of libraries, are two of the most significant activities that demonstrate the plasticity of our brains. Libraries and reading have roles in maintaining the vitality of the brain and allowing people to reach their full potential. Understanding the power of neuroplasticity can help librarians verbalize and articulate how libraries and reading change people.

Neuroplasticity means that people, at any stage of their lives, can become new people. Libraries offer that opportunity all the time, even if just means making their books available—books that can introduce people to whole new ideas, new ways of thinking, new perspectives. How can libraries make the awkwardness of trying something new more inviting? How can librarians design programming that helps patrons heighten their awareness of thought and action patterns? Julie Mandal’s presentation provided useful questions for librarians to think about.

Right at the beginning of her presentation Julie Mandal mentioned that the findings from brain research are only preliminary. But the underlying point was compelling—understanding the brain can result in “strong libraries for a better world!”

Presentation file for Library Service Meets Brain Research!:

Bibliotherapy: Stories, Reading and the Brain That Heals Itself

The second session I attended at OLA 2010 that mentioned Norman Doidge’s The Brain That Changes Itself was called Bibliotherapy: Stories, Reading and the Brain That Heals Itself. The presenter was Dr. Hoi Cheu, the director of the Centre for Humanities Research and Creativity at Laurentian University.

The session was about the effects of reading on the brain. Information in stories creates maps in our brains, and the stories help us to understand human relationships. The story becomes a map to the understanding of the world. People in complex situations who do not have the words to define the world around them may suffer from the effects of uncertainty, including becoming ill. When people find the words–when they have the story–people can become better. “Bibliotherapy” is not a new concept. The practice of handing out Bibles to people in hospitals can be considered a form of bibliotherapy. Dr. Cheu related the story of Helen Keller, who used words to help herself recover a sense of the world.

According to Dr. Cheu, the brain evolved to decode language. Reading is like turning on the power. Books and stories are not self-contained goods that have value outside of a person reading them. Their value derives when someone reads them with an inward eye. In the light of recent findings on neuroplasticity, one can now take this to mean to people’s brains change when they read, sometimes with healthful results. For example, studies have shown that people who read are more likely to recover from heart disease.

Children who ask for the story to be read over and over are actually altering their brains. They need the repetition until the story is figured out. Figuring out a story means that the brain has changed. A reader, in a sense, becomes a different person. The person who did not know the meaning of the story is different from the person who knows the meaning.

Books or stories are about organizing our experiences into something that gives us mental health. Dr. Cheu spoke about people with multiple personality disorder, and how catalyst events can fracture one’s understanding of the world. Words, organized into stories, can be useful tools to help people recover a cognitive balance.

Dr. Cheu stated that reading is more effective than TV for our memory. Language is coded more effectively in our memory than images from a TV. But this is also a case of use it or lose it. Reading a lot develops our memory, as well as our capacity to understand the world.

One has to pause and reflect that books (and libraries) contain not just stories that have a healing effect on our brains, but actually contain the entire intelligence of the human race. Libraries are not just places to get information or to read for pleasure, but are places that have stories and information important in people’s lives. When we speak of libraries as cultural centres, we can say that they are places that build our brains– our memories and our capacities to understand the world. Stories only work if they are read, and once read they are mapped into our brains so that we can find our way in the complex world around us.

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