By Namu Ju
We all know that reading is good for you. Our schools tell us, our parents tell us, and that guilty little voice in our heads tells us while we’re binge-watching the new season of whatever Netflix show we’re currently obsessed with.
But beyond the stock answer of “reading makes you smarter,” why is reading good for you? Why should we spend our time with our noses in books when there are so many other forms of content readily available? The reasons may seem obvious but take a closer look.
Keeps Your Body Calm
Whether it is work or relationship related, or anything else from this stressfully long list of stressors, stress is real, and its effects can be seriously damaging. Because stressors are unavoidable, developing ways to manage stress is vital to living a healthy and fulfilling life. The University of Sussex performed a study on stress reduction and found that reading worked better and faster than other stress management methods, such as listening to music, going for a walk, or winding down with a cup of tea.
The study found that subjects only needed six minutes of silent reading to experience a decrease in heart rate and ease of muscle tension. Reading was found to reduce stress levels by 68%, while listening to music reduced levels by 61%, having a cup of tea or coffee by 54%, and taking a walk by 42%. Dr Lewis, who conducted the study, clarified that reading 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.”
Keeps Your Mind Sharp
The phrase “use it or lose it” accurately reflects our relationship to our cognitive abilities. Reading is proven to build vocabulary, hone writing skills, and improve analytical thinking, concentration, and memory. In fact, reading regularly has been shown to reduce the chance of cognitive decline with age. Lifelong readers were found to be better protected against dementia and Alzheimer’s disease at the end of their lives. Researchers found upon autopsy that though some had the same plaques, tangles, and brain damage associated with dementia, regular mental stimulation protected some from exhibiting signs of dementia during their lives.
Reading also stimulates the left temporal cortex, the area of the brain most associated with language reception. That stimulation continues long after the book’s been put down. Emory University conducted a study and found that the benefits of reading persist for five days after the reading session. More surprisingly, the study found that reading also stimulates the central sulcus, the area of the brain responsible for body sensations and motor activity. Neuroscientist Gregory Berns explains that these biological neural changes associated with physical sensation and movement “suggest that reading a novel can transport you into the body of the protagonist.”
Keeps Your Heart Soft
Studies have shown that reading, especially reading literary fiction, influences personality and increases levels of empathy and emotional intelligence. Reading about experiences different from your own naturally exercises one’s ability to understand what others are thinking and feeling.
Researchers at The New School in New York City found that literary fiction, as opposed to popular fiction, prompts readers to imagine the characters’ introspective dialogues. Popular fiction tends to portray dramatic situations but usually features predictable characters who experience little character development or internal complexities.
Literary fiction, on the other hand, focuses more on the psychology of the characters and their relationships. Readers of literary fiction can carry this psychological awareness into the real world, which is also full of complicated characters with complex inner lives. While popular fiction often contains more dramatic and otherworldly situations, characters in literary fiction often disrupt reader expectations and undermine stereotypes and prejudices—which, in turn, teaches readers about understanding those who are different from ourselves.
So pick up and dust off that book you’ve been meaning to read or charge up your Kindle. If you need recommendations on books beyond the straight white male experiences that make up the bulk of the Western literary canon, check out some of these lists. Books can be expensive, especially for the voracious reader, but the internet is an amazing place. Project Gutenberg boasts over 60,000 free ebooks, with a focus on older books for which the U.S. copyright has expired. Internet Sacred Text Archive is the largest freely available archive of ebooks about religion, mythology, and folklore.
The International Children’s Digital Library has a vast collection of children’s books and translations from around the world, and ManyBooks features over 50,000 classic and contemporary titles. With only benefits to gain from reading and free, life-changing books at your fingertips, there’s really nothing stopping you from starting, like, now.