The Benefits of Books
I am a good reader, but no longer a voracious one. There was a time I could polish off a book in a day. Now, with many conflicting pressures, it’s more difficult to read at all. The research below, though, is convincing me to pick up another paperback tonight …
A 2014 study from Common Sense Media shows that kids read for fun less and less as they get older. 45% of 17-year-olds report they read by choice only once or twice a year. And according to a 2013 poll carried out by the Huffington Post, 41 percent of adult respondents had not read a fiction book in the past year; while 42 percent had not read a nonfiction book.
There was overlap in those numbers, but I find this shocking. Nearly half of all respondents have not picked up a book in the past year.
Why do I consider this a problem? Well, it’s partly selfish, isn’t it? As a writer, I obviously want more people reading!
Jokes aside, the primary reason this concerns me is that reading is fundamental – particularly to our mental health. And increasingly, research shows that it impacts our social health as well.
Consider first the stress relief benefits of reading. We’re coming out of the holiday season, and everyone could use a little less stress in their lives. According to research carried out by cognitive neurologist Dr. David Lewis, reading for as little as six minutes in silence reduced subjects’ stress levels by 68%. This was the greatest reduction he saw, compared to subjects listening to music, taking a walk, having a cup of tea, or playing video games. In fact, reading was the only activity which was found to reduce subjects’ heart rates below their starting levels.
Reading’s impact on our mental health is the most researched aspect. Researchers at Emory University’s Center for Neuropolicy in Atlanta took brain scans of resting students, who were then asked to read sections of a novel over nine nights. The students’ brains were scanned each morning following the nightly reading assignment, and then again daily for five days after they had finished the book.
The scans revealed heightened connectivity within the students’ brains on the mornings following the assignments, and the changes persisted for the five days after the students had finished the novel. Both the areas of the brain associated with language comprehension and that associated with sensations and movement were enhanced.
Those subjects were university students, but they’re not the only ones who benefit from reading. New research from the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, found elderly people who regularly read or play mentally challenging games are 2 ½ times less likely to suffer from Alzheimer’s Disease. And the journal of Neurology found those who engaged in mentally stimulating activities (such as reading) experience a 32% slower memory decline compared to their peers.
But the most fascinating aspect to me is reading’s effect on our social health. Recent research published in the journal Science showed that reading literary works (though, interestingly, not popular fiction) cultivates a skill known as “theory of mind,” which NPR describes as the “ability to ‘read’ the thoughts and feelings of others.”
According to the researchers, familiarity with fiction, self-reported empathy, and performance on an advanced affective Theory of Mind test have been correlated. Fiction seems also to expand our knowledge of others’ lives, helping us recognize our similarity to them. In fact, fiction may change how, not just what, people think about others. Researchers went on to submit that fiction affects Theory of Mind processes because it forces readers to engage in mind-reading and character construction, thus increasing our capabilities for empathy.
So let’s review: The simple act of reading can reduce your stress, grow your mind, halt mental decline, and increase your ability to identify with the people around you.
That’s why I want to encourage you to visit your local library this week – and get back to the fundamentals.
Naturally, I recommend starting with any of the fine books from Apocalypse Ink Productions.
(Adapted from a December speech.)
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