Losing yourself in a good book is one of life’s simple pleasures, but did you know that reading is also hugely beneficial to your health? Neurological researchers at Emory University have spent years studying how reading affects the brain and have identified that there is a direct link between reading a good book and enhanced cognitive ability. The study, entitled ‘Short- and Long-Term Effects of a Novel on Connectivity in the Brain’, has been published in the journal Brain Connectivity and has shown that the way the brain responds to reading is very similar to the way muscle memory is formed in sport.
I’m sure you don’t really need much of an excuse to find more time to read, but take a look at these incredible reasons as to why reading is so good for your health:
According to a study from the University of Sussex, reading for just 6 minutes a day can reduce stress levels by up to 68%! Cognitive neuropsychologist, Dr David Lewis, explain, “By losing yourself in a thoroughly engrossing book you can escape from the worries and stresses of the everyday world and spend a while exploring the domain of the author’s imagination. This 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.” When a person reads their heart rate slows down and the whole body relaxes. Researchers have concluded that this is more effective at lowering stress levels than other so-called relaxing activities, such as listening to music or sitting down with a cup of tea. Neurologist Baroness Susan Greenfield says, “Reading novels and magazines can offer a brief respite from the stresses and strains of everyday life. Traditionally reading was associated with learning, and in this way it is good for personal development, but reading a magazine or even cook book can be very comforting. Our brains are constantly bombarded with information, more so now than ever before, and reading is a good way to wind down.”
If you imagine your brain as a muscle, then the act of reading is exercise for the brain. The more you read, the more the ‘brain muscle’ is being worked and will therefore get stronger and more efficient. Around 820,000 people suffer from some form of dementia in the UK and research has shown that people who do mentally stimulating activities, such as reading, have a slower rate of memory decline than those who don’t do these types of activity. Not only does reading improve memory, but it also helps the brain remain active in old age.
It’s not just children that benefit from learning new words and expanding their vocabulary when they read. There are approximately 1,025,109.8 words in the English language and this figure is continually increasing, so you can pretty much guarantee that there are words out there that you have never heard of, let alone know the meaning of. According to a Scholastic report it is estimated that we learn 5 to 15 % of all the words we know through reading, so even as adults there is something to be gained from regular reading.
Refines brain function
Reading fiction enables a reader to escape from the mundanity of day-to-day life and step into the shoes of an infinite number of different characters and scenarios. This escapism causes significant changes within the left temporal cortex of the brain, which is the part of the brain associated with language comprehension and a phenomenon known as “embodied cognition“. This brain function allows neurons to trick us into thinking we are doing something we are not, ergo – escapism. Professor Gregory S. Berns, explains “The act of reading puts the reader in the body of the protagonist and at a minimum, we can say that reading stories – especially those with strong narrative arcs – reconfigures brain networks for at least a few days. It shows how stories can stay with us. This may have profound implications for children and the role of reading in shaping their brains”. The changes that reading makes to brain function is likely to expand a person’s emotional intelligence and encourages empathy, which they can then take back with them to the real world. Tied in with this empathy is the belief that reading can motivate and encourage people to achieve life goals, for example reading about someone who has worked hard, overcome obstacles and achieved their lifelong ambition may inspire the reader to do the same in their own life. In fact, the closer you identify with a character, whether you recognise similar traits or simply that you like them, the more likely you are to empathise with them and therefore are more likely to take action yourself. Evidence of this is shown in a recent survey by the National Year of Reading where 60% of those surveyed claimed reading had influenced them to change something in their lives with one in five respondents claiming to have taken action as a reaction to reading an influential article or book. Professor Louis Appleby CBE, National Director for Mental Health in England, agrees that reading is beneficial to our health and says, “When we hear that reading is ‘good for us’ we may assume that this is because it helps our education. But reading anything for pleasure can also raise your spirits, offer an escape from everyday stresses, help you empathise with other people AND keep the brain ticking over. Reaching for a favourite magazine or book could well be good for your health.”