Finck: Word power is brain power


My dad loves to learn new words. He delights in the sound of interesting phrases or terms and has fun using them. If you ask him how it’s going, he’ll say, “Everything is copasetic.” He calls Mom “the epitome of motherhood.” When he comes across a word that he doesn’t yet own, he buys it. He spends a minute focusing on it, repeating it to himself, and then depositing it in his mental bank account. He approaches vocabulary-building like some people play Monopoly, buying every property they land on, knowing the investment will pay off.
Perhaps Dad’s extensive vocabulary is one of the clues to his remarkable health and alertness at age 92.
The cover story for the September issue of “Reader’s Digest”—the “Genius Issue”—is called “Secrets to a Sharper Mind.” One of the most powerful “secrets” is to make your brain wealthy with words. Researchers from Spain’s University of Santiago de Compostela discovered that having a rich vocabulary “can significantly delay the manifestation of mental decline.” They tested the vocabularies of 300 people ages 50 and older. “Participants with the lowest scores were between three and four times more at risk of cognitive decay than participants with the highest scores.”
Reading is one of the best ways to build your vocabulary. When your mind is engaged in a story and encounters a new word, your eagerness to find out what happens next puts your mind in a good state for learning. Context clues help you figure out the meaning of the new word.
Reading lots of books makes it more likely that you’ll meet new words. It also increases your opportunities to meet the same word again and again in different contexts, rounding out your understanding of its connotations. You now own that word. You’ve expanded your mental assets.
Books boost your brain power more than newspapers or magazines, says a Yale research team, also cited in the September Reader’s Digest. The reason is that when you read a longer story, you have to make connections between one event and the next, between one character and another—over an extended narrative. If you’re reading a nonfiction book, your brain needs to connect the ideas from one chapter to the ideas in the next. It’s all about seeing connections. “When you make connections, so does your brain, literally forging new pathways between regions in all four lobes and both hemispheres. Over time, these neural networks can promote quicker thinking and may provide a greater defense against the worst effects of cognitive decay.”
Want to be more systematic about building your vocabulary? Sign up for “Word of the Day” emails through Last week, my daughter sent an email asking, “Shall we confabulate on Saturday?” Confabulate? That’s a new word for me. Apparently, it was that day’s Word of the Day and she was eager to try using it. Happily, she attached the definition. It means “to converse informally; chat.” Yes! I love to confabulate!
And I just decided that “confabulate” is my new favorite word.
What’s yours? You can reach me at [email protected]