Do Libraries Only Use 10% of Your Brain?

There’s an old yet hilariously inaccurate saying that people only use ten percent of their brains, but I’d like to suggest that it may have some merit in regard to library usage. Not that library members only use ten percent of their brains, but that the average material holdings of a library only stimulate ten percent of people’s brains. In other words, rather than be supportive of the entire brain, the library focuses on a much smaller portion of it.

The relatively short neuroscience lesson is that there are three major areas that are used for reading: Broca’s area, Wernicke’s area, and the inferior parietal lobule. While current understanding indicates that the nerve impulses from reading are sent out to other areas of the brain, it still represents a small portion of the overall brain that is being activated. Consider these images of brain scans to the right taken in profile; reading is at the top. (The front of the brain is to the left. Click to embiggen.) From the color activity map, the major activity is focused towards the back of the brain where the visual information is received and processed. While there are some some spots of activity elsewhere, the brain is otherwise largely inactive.

Perhaps it is not mathematical equivalent to ten percent (lest someone gets stuck on that little detail), but to me it feels that the oft stated mission and goal of the library (literacy and reading) focus on just one particular part of the brain to the detriment of all the other wonderful senses and functions that have evolved from our primate ancestors.

I can’t say that the average public library completely ignores these other brain areas, but I do think we give up on them over the course of the life of an individual. If we were to examine at the average program offerings of public libraries across the United States, I would surmise that the pattern you would see is that early childhood and kids programs represent the most brain stimulating programs with crafts, songs, body movements, and things to hear, touch, see, and possibly smell and taste. But once people age out of that early stage of development, the programs shift away from those deeply interactive offerings. Adult programming moves to the more passive activities like book clubs and computer instruction with a lesser offering of crafting and other creation based programs. To me it feels like a sad and perplexing narrowing of the focus from body and mind combined to simply the mind with only limited (if any) jaunts to the body. It’s as if getting old meant you were beyond anything but intellectual activities. Why is this so?

As much as it is said that libraries are gateways to other worlds through the books that they carry, there is still a very real world that people want to experience with all of their senses and emotions. These are brains (and bodies) that are looking for more stimulation than just the printed word. If public libraries want to reflect life in their communities, a true reflection means more than just passive intellectual pursuits. It means having bodies in motion, multiple senses engaged, and reaching towards those other areas of the brain.

What do you think?

6 thoughts on “Do Libraries Only Use 10% of Your Brain?

  1. I get what you’re saying — we need to get more whole-body to stimulate whole-brain — but I’m honestly not seeing the desire for that kind of programming. Movement programs attract crickets. Book clubs attract a robust following. My belief is that, largely, we learn to meet our needs for many kinds of activity in many other places, even if it’s just going to the fridge for a beer or walking around the block. Even if we could set up a bunch of recliners and mini-fridges (which is actually sounding like an interesting program), I just don’t think folks would attend, for the most part.

    • I have done dance and exercise classes with decent attendance success rates at my library with comments that are asking when we are going to offer it again. I know this kind of programming is very beholden to local demographics, but my question to you is whether you have asked your library members as to what they want this; I’ve found that people are generally surprised that the library is offering something like zumba or tai chi. They don’t think it’s an option so they don’t ask for it either.

      • Actually, Andy, we have done those programs — and people stay away in droves. We had tai chi and ballroom dancing in January (both of which I attended). Computer programs done by adult programming get fewer than 10 participants. And yet we held a book discussion this month that got 60 attendees. The only other program approaching that interest for us has been an extreme couponing class. I don’t know if they don’t expect it from us so decide it couldn’t be any good or if book discussions are really what they want form us. *sigh*

  2. We have several library staff who come to me (yes, I am the Director) with ideas for programs that are not “traditionally” library programs – and, intially, I had to (privately) force myself to say yes. Many are for teens and younger kids, but, even if they don’t start out as extremely popular, they definitely develop a devoted following. Crafts programs (including knitting) are a given. We have done everything from regular chess programs (for kids and adults), prom dress giveaways (I don’t know what section of your brain that stimulates, but it’s exhausting!), Touch a Truck programs (fire trucks, ambulances, police motorcycles, etc.), to Zumba (was for kids – now their moms are joining). Music programming is gaining in popularity – we do a annual series of jazz concerts, with notable musicians.
    I think this is part of library as community anchor role. And, I want to point out – we are far, far from a well-funded library. Thank goodness many staff are creative enough to come up with ideas and find a way to make it happen! (I’m channeling JP Porcaro here).

    • Thanks for the comment, Cindy. I do think that it takes some creativity and some finagling to get the programming in. I have a small program budget and rely a lot on free or inexpensive performers who support the library and are willing to donate their time. I think the most remarkable thing is how much you can get if you just ask; I’ve found a ton of programs that require the presenters to do presentations as part of their grant as well as government agencies looking for more exposure for their programs. It’s amazing what I can get.

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