For many of us these days, reading has been reduced to the occasional clicked-on article showing up on our Facebook or Twitter feed, GPS directions, and the monthly bills. If you’re like me, you have a stack of “want-to-read” books that sound really interesting but that you never seem to make a dent in.
I miss reading. It used to be one of my favorite pastimes. I do read quite a few brain books these days – but that’s different. I miss diving into a good book that I can’t put down and don’t want to do anything else until I reach the last word. Then, I feel sad when it’s over, and I actually miss the characters. (If you can relate, you’ll like this “delicious reading experiences” Twitter thread.) (I’ve been told that I wrote one of these books!)
I’m jealous of my retired mother who is in a book club and makes regular trips to the library. There’s something so soothing about the quiet calm of a library and the smell of all the books. My Grandmother Eva used to go through two or three of those bodice-ripper romance novels every week. She had grocery bags full of the steamy paperbacks sitting around. I’m willing to bet her goal wasn’t to keep her brain healthy 😉 – little did she know that she was!
Whether you read textbooks, the latest best-sellers, or steamy paperbacks, you’re giving your brain a workout with every page you turn. Science has determined that reading benefits your brain in many measurable ways.
Learning to Read Rewires Your Brain
Learning to read physically changes your brain’s form and function.
One study looked at 31 adults who started reading at an early age, 22 individuals who learned to read as adults, and ten people who were illiterate. The scientists used functional magnetic resonance imaging scans to measure and compare brain function of the participants as they responded to oral language, written language, and visual tasks.
In readers, the occipital lobe, the visual processing center of the brain, was more developed. This means that the readers could process visual information more efficiently. This brain trait could translate into enhanced imagination and creativity skills as well as being able to visualize the future better for decision-making and planning. The readers’ parietal lobes were also strengthened. The parietal lobe turns letters into words and words into thoughts. It’s essential to writing and reading comprehension.
Reading helps people’s brains process information both visually and verbally more effectively. Brains that can’t read might also struggle to process verbal information which could be why a slow reader may lag in other academic areas. Reading improves every aspect of a person’s communication skills.
Another study found that reading improved communication between areas of the brain. One hundred hours of intensive reading instruction increased the quantity of compromised white matter in children’s’ brains to normal levels. The article, How Reading Increases Your Emotional Intelligence & Brain Function: The Findings of Recent Scientific Studies, explains:
‘Humans have been reading and writing for only about 5000 years—too short for major evolutionary changes,’ writes Greg Miller in Science. We got by well enough for tens of thousands of years before written language. But neuroscientists theorize that reading ‘rewires’ areas of the brain responsible for both vision and spoken language. Even adults who learn to read late in life can experience these effects, increasing ‘functional connectivity with the visual cortex,’ some researchers have found, which may be ‘the brain’s way of filtering and fine-tuning the flood of visual information that calls for our attention’ in the modern world.”
Seven Ways Reading Benefits Your Brain
Studies show that staying mentally stimulated can slow the progress of and reduce the risks of Alzheimer’s and dementia. You’ve got a “use it or lose it” brain. Information rarely accessed and behaviors seldom used cause a decrease in those neural pathways until connections may be completely lost in a process called “synaptic pruning.” As a matter of fact, you may be unknowingly contributing to your brain’s decline by not challenging it. Activities like reading, jigsaw puzzles, and chess give your brain a workout and keep it actively stimulated.
Did you ever notice how stress disappears when you lose yourself in a good read? If you’re looking for a way to de-stress, grab a book and let your mind forget about your problems for a while.
According to a 2009 study, reading reduced stress levels by as much as 68 percent, which was more than listening to music, having a cup of tea, playing video games, or going for a walk. The researchers noted that participants who engaged in just six minutes of reading experienced slowed heart rates and reduced muscle tension. Study co-author Dr. David Lewis, a neuropsychologist at Mindlab International at Sussex, said:
It really doesn’t matter what book you read, by losing yourself in a thoroughly engrossing book you can escape from the worries and stresses of the everyday world and spend a while exploring the domain of the author’s imagination. This is more than merely a distraction but an active engaging of the imagination as the words on the printed page stimulate your creativity and cause you to enter what is essentially an altered state of consciousness.”
Enhanced Social Skills
For some, reading books are a way to escape the real world and the people in it. Interestingly enough, research shows that reading can actually improve social skills to help you deal with those people. One study found that individuals who read fiction may be better at generating what is known as “theory of mind.” Theory of mind is the ability to understand others’ mental states, beliefs, desires, and differing thoughts. It’s a skill essential for complex social relationships.
Another study found that individuals who read fiction scored higher on tests of empathy than those who read nonfiction.
It goes without saying, but I’m going to say it: the more you read, the more words to which you are exposed. Research provides strong support for the correlation between word-reading skill and vocabulary. Science confirms the importance of reading to the process of vocabulary acquisition in children and adolescents. In adults, a larger vocabulary corresponds with a higher income. I read somewhere that the average American reads a book a year. The CEO of a company averages around 60 books a year. Enough said.
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 — work together.
According to one study, mental stimulation like reading can help protect memory and thinking skills, especially as you age. The authors even suggest that reading every day can slow down the late-life cognitive decline. In other research, reading has been shown to slow the rate of memory deterioration and the decline of other key mental capacities. This translates indirectly as reading can actually help people live longer.
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 to developing and retaining memory.
Improved Brain Connectivity and Function
One study determined that becoming engrossed in a novel enhances the brain’s resting-state connectivity and over-all function. Specifically, reading fiction improves the reader’s ability to put themselves in another’s shoes and flex imagination in a way similar to the visualization of a muscle memory in sports.
Heightened connectivity was seen in the left-temporal cortex, an area of the brain associated with receptivity for language, and the central sulcus, the primary sensory motor region. Neurons here make representations of sensation for the body, a phenomenon known as grounded cognition. Just thinking about running, for instance, can activate the neurons associated with the physical act of running.
Creating a bedtime ritual, such as reading before bed, signals to your body that it’s time to wind down and go to sleep, according to the Mayo Clinic. You will want to be sure to read a real book though and limit your screen time before bed. Screens like e-readers and tablets can actually keep you awake longer and disrupt your sleep.
That applies especially to kids. Fifty-four percent of children sleep near a small screen and get an average of 20 minutes less sleep according to research. So reach for the literal page-turners before switching off the light.
Pick Up a Real Paper Book for the Most Benefit
Although more and more people are reading electronically, it seems safe to say that real books aren’t going anywhere. (Personally, I can’t stand to read electronically. I want to hold a book in my hand.) It’s a good thing too. As it turns out, diving into a page-turner has benefits that e-reading does not.
Research suggests that reading on a screen slows you down and that you absorb less of what you read. Neuroscience, in fact, has shown that you use different parts of your brain when reading from a piece of paper and a screen. Reading on screens trains your brain for “non-linear” reading. This is when you skim a screen or your eyes dart around a web page.
Science says that the tactility and permanence of paper pages provide your brain with a different cognitive and emotional experiences, which can lead to deeper understanding and better comprehension. The scrolling necessary when reading electronically has two negative impacts. Even the small effort required to drag a mouse or swipe a finger is a significant diversion of attention. Text flowing up and down a screen also disrupts visual attention. It constantly forces your eyes to re-focus and search for a new starting point.