Why Read? Research Suggests Several Important Benefits
Updated: Mar 13
These days, it’s easy to wonder if anybody is still reading actual books. With all the podcasts, TED Talks, YouTube videos, and dozens of other online, screen-based methods for delivering information, the act of picking up a book—with a cover and text printed in ink on paper—can seem like a quaint throwback to an earlier time.
But a growing body of scientific literature suggests that reading actual books may be more important than we realize for enhancing certain parts of our brains and delaying the onset of dementia. Maybe that’s why so many people who have had an immense effect on our world credit obsessive reading with inspiring their achievements.
One reason may be that reading a book gives your brain an “empathy workout.” The research is still in the early stages, but when they scanned brain waves, the scientists found that when you read about a character playing tennis, areas of your brain light up as if you were physically out there on the court yourself. When you read about fictional characters very different from yourself, it boosts areas of your brain associated with emotional intelligence, which help you understand what others are thinking by reading their emotions. Researchers also found that deep reading, when you get really absorbed in a book, builds up your ability to focus and grasp complex ideas.
Just learning to read as a child has profound impacts on brain development, creating a specialized area in your left ventral occipital temporal region, increased verbal memory, and thickening your corpus callosum, which is the information highway that connects the left and right hemispheres of your brain. Exposure to vocabulary through reading leads to higher scores on general tests of intelligence for children. In fact, Harvard professor Joseph Henrich indicates research suggesting that the Protestant Reformation, along with Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press and the increased availability of printed books—including the Bible, printed in the languages spoken by the common people of Europe—led to a massive increase in literacy that literally began rewiring the human brain.
Research published in the journal Neurology also suggests that regular reading may slow the inevitable decline in memory and brain function as we age. Frequent brain exercise—deep reading, but also playing chess or working puzzles—was shown to lower mental decline by 32 percent. And people who engaged in brain exercise were 2.5 times less likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease than those who were not.
And there’s more. A 2009 study by researchers at Sussex University found that reading can reduce stress by as much as 68 percent. Losing yourself in a thoroughly engrossing book can help you escape the worries and stresses of the everyday world by participating in the domain of the author’s imagination.
The bottom line is that reading isn’t just a way to cram facts into your brain, no matter what your high school teachers may have told you. It’s a way to continuously rewire your brain to become more effective and efficient, to strengthen your ability to imagine alternative scenarios when you make decisions, to remember details and think through complex problems. It doesn’t just make you more knowledgeable; you can get that from a TED Talk. Reading makes us all functionally smarter.
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