In the 11th century, a Japanese woman known as Murasaki Shikibu wrote “The Tale of Genji,” a 54-chapter story of courtly seduction believed to be the world’s first novel.
What exactly do human beings get from reading books? Is it just a matter of pleasure, or are there benefits beyond enjoyment? The scientific answer is a resounding “yes.”
Reading books benefits both your physical and mental health, and those benefits can last a lifetime. They begin in early childhood and continue thru the senior years. Here’s a brief explanation of how reading books can change your brain—and your body—for the better.
Reading strengthens your brain
A growing body of research indicates that reading literally changes your mind.
Researchers have confirmed (reliable source) that reading requires a complex network of circuits and messages in the brain, using MRI scans. Those networks become stronger and more sophisticated as your reading ability improves.
Researchers used functional MRI scans to test the effect of reading a novel on the brain in one study from 2013. Over the course of nine days, study participants read the novel “Pompeii.” As the story progressed, more and more parts of the brain began to light up with activity.
Brain scans revealed that brain connectivity increased during the reading time and for days later, particularly in the somatosensory cortex, the portion of the brain that responds to bodily sensations like movement and pain.
Why should children and parents read together?
Doctors at the Cleveland Clinic recommend that parents read with their children beginning as early as infancy and continuing through elementary school years.
Reading with your children builds warm and happy associations with books, increasing the likelihood that kids will find reading enjoyable in the future.
Reading at home boosts school performance later on. It also increases vocabulary, raises self-esteem, builds good communication skills, and strengthens the prediction engine that is the human brain.
Increases your ability to empathize
And speaking of sensing pain, research by Trusted Source has shown that people who read literary fiction—stories that explore the inner lives of characters—show a heightened ability to understand the feelings and beliefs of others.
Researchers call this ability the “theory of mind,” a set of skills essential for building, navigating, and maintaining social relationships.
While a single session of reading literary fiction isn’t likely to spark this feeling, research shows that long-term fiction readers do tend to have a better-developed theory of mind.
Builds your vocabulary
Reading researchers as far back as the 1960s have discussed what’s known as “the Matthew effect,” a term that refers to biblical verse Matthew 13:12: “Whoever has will be given more, and they will have an abundance.” Whoever does not have, even what they have, will be taken from them. ”
The Matthew effect sums up the idea that the rich get richer and the poor get poorer — a concept that applies as much to vocabulary as it does to money.
Researchers have found that students who read books regularly, beginning at a young age, gradually develop a large vocabulary. And your vocabulary size can influence many areas of your life, from scores on standardized tests to college admissions and job opportunities.
A 2019 poll conducted by Cengage showed that 69 percent of employers are looking to hire people with “soft” skills, like the ability to communicate effectively. Reading books is the best way to increase your exposure to new words, learned in context.
Helps prevent age-related cognitive decline
Reading books and magazines, according to the National Institute on AgingTrusted Source, is a good method to keep your mind active as you get older.
While there is no definitive evidence that reading books prevent diseases like Alzheimer’s, studies suggest that seniors who read and solve arithmetic problems on a daily basis preserve and increase their cognitive function.
The sooner you begin, the better. Patients who had engaged in mentally challenging activities throughout their lives were less likely to develop plaques, lesions, and tau-protein tangles identified in the brains of people with dementia, according to a 2013 study done by Rush University Medical Center.
In 2009, a group of researchers measured the effects of yoga, humor, and reading on the stress levels of students in demanding health science programs in the United States.
The study found that 30 minutes of reading lowered blood pressure, heart rate, and feelings of psychological distress just as effectively as yoga and humor did.
The authors concluded, “Since time constraints are one of the most frequently cited reasons for high-stress levels reported by health science students, 30 minutes of one of these techniques can be easily incorporated into their schedule without diverting a large amount of time from their studies.”
Prepares you for a good night’s rest
Doctors at the Mayo Clinic suggest reading as part of a regular sleep routine. For best results, you may want to choose a printed book rather than read on a screen since the light emitted by your device could keep you awake and lead to other unwanted health outcomes.
Doctors also recommend that you read somewhere other than your bedroom if you have trouble falling asleep.
Helps alleviate depression symptoms
British philosopher Sir Roger Scruton once wrote, “Consolation from imaginary things is not an imaginary consolation.” People with depression often feel isolated and estranged from everyone else. And that’s a feeling books can sometimes lessen.
Reading fiction can allow you to temporarily escape your own world and become swept up in the imagined experiences of the characters. And nonfiction self-help books can teach you strategies that may help you manage symptoms.
That’s why the United Kingdom’s National Health Service has begun Reading Well, a Books on Prescription program where medical experts prescribe self-help books curated by medical experts specifically for certain conditions.
May even help you live longer
A long-term health and retirement study followed a cohort of 3,635 adult participants for a period of 12 years, finding that those who read books lived around 2 years longer than those who either didn’t read or who read magazines and other forms of media.
The study also concluded that people who read more than 3 1/2 hours every week were 23 percent more likely to live longer than those who didn’t read at all.
What should you be reading?
So, what are you supposed to be reading? In a nutshell, whatever you can get your hands on.
There was a time when librarians traveling the mountains with saddlebags full of books were the only way to get books to isolated areas. But that is no longer the case. Almost everyone has access to the massive libraries that their cellphones and tablets contain.
If you’re short on time, set aside a few minutes each day to write a blog about a niche issue. If you’re looking for a way to get away from it all, fantasy or historical literature can take you to another world entirely.
If you’re on the fast route to success, read nonfiction advice from someone who’s already made it. Consider it a mentoring that you can pick up and drop down as needed.
One thing to note: Don’t read solely on a device. Flip through print books, too. Studies have shown repeatedly that people who read print books score higher on comprehension tests and remember more of what they read than people who read the same material in digital form.
That may be, in part, because people tend to read print more slowly than they read digital content.
Bypass the binge-watching from time to time
There’s nothing wrong with watching an entire television series, start to finish, in a single weekend—just as there’s nothing wrong with eating a large, luscious dessert.
But binge-watching TV probably needs to be an occasional treat rather than your main source of intellectual stimulation. Research shows that prolonged TV viewing, especially for children, may change the brain in unhealthy ways.
Reading is very, very good for you. Research shows that regular reading:
- It improves brain connectivity.
- It increases your vocabulary and comprehension.
- It empowers you to empathize with other people.
- It aids in sleep readiness.
- Reduces stress
- Lower blood pressure and heart rate
- Fighting depression symptoms
- It prevents cognitive decline as you age.
- It contributes to a longer life.
It’s especially important for children to read as much as possible because the effects of reading are cumulative. However, it’s never too late to begin taking advantage of the many physical and psychological benefits waiting for you in the pages of a good book.