Imagine an activity that’s immensely enjoyable – indeed, addictive – with no downsides and enormous benefits. Sounds too good to be true, but, believe it or not, you’re doing it right now.
Reading is a powerful and intoxicating act. In today’s world of constant stimulation, however, it seems ever more difficult to settle into a good book. But the desire is never far from our thoughts. Surveys have found that ‘reading more books’ is a constant New Year’s resolution for people the world over.
And while we all know how resolutions can so easily fall by the wayside, this is one we should strive to keep, for the benefits of reading are truly amazing.
Reading novels strengthens the brain
For a large chunk of our childhoods (and teenage years), many of us were constantly being told to switch off the TV and open a book. Well, science has shown that our nagging parents may have been on to something.
Just like muscles, your brain requires exercise too, and reading novels is a great way to get those neurons firing. MRI scans have been used to observe the brain while a person is reading a novel. This study, conducted over nine days, showed different areas of the brain lighting up with activity as the tension in the story ramped. For days afterwards, brain connectivity was shown to have increased, especially in the part of the brain responsible for physical sensations, like movement and pain.
More than consuming TV shows or movies or listening to audiobooks, reading a novel requires effort from the brain, not just in reading language and translating it into story, but conjuring images and landscapes in our mind and using our imagination. During and after the act of reading, our minds are alive and firing.
Reading reduces stress
It’s hard sometimes to pull ourselves out of a relentless pattern of negative thoughts, but studies have found that reading, even for short periods, can reduce stress levels by nearly 70%. It’s even more effective than going for a walk or listening to music.
One reason why reading can be such a tonic is the simple fact that, as we read, we are forced to concentrate on the words and derive meaning from them, which distracts from consuming, negative thoughts. There’s also the pure escapism that diving into a new and different world for hours on end can provide. We enter into the minds of different characters, experience different consciousnesses, and find relief from whatever it is that’s causing our anxiety.
Reading promotes the “theory of mind”
The “theory of mind” relates to a set of skills that are essential to building, navigating and maintaining social relationships. Basically, it’s our ability to empathise. When we consume novels, we consume stories and the characters contained within. While they may be fiction, they can still be honest portrayals that speak truly of lives and experiences occurring all around us in the real world.
Reading books forces us to walk in someone else’s shoes, to view the world from different a perspective, which in turn leads to stronger and more meaningful relationships with the people in our lives.
Reading fights cognitive decline
In the scientific world, there’s something called the cognitive reserve hypothesis, which suggests that mentally challenging tasks (like reading) help build and maintain brain cells and connections between brain cells. These connections can help mitigate damage done by Alzheimer’s or dementia, which helps preserve critical thinking and memory skills.
A study conducted in 2013 has leant weight to this hypothesis, finding that people who engage in reading or mathematical challenges throughout their life show reduced plaque damage and greater memory retention.
Even those who take up regular reading later in life demonstrate benefits too, which goes to show that it’s never too late to pick up a book.