Why Is Reading Good For You?
We Look At How Reading Affects Your Cognitive Function, Your Brain Health, & More
Everybody knows that reading is good for you. That isn’t something we feel the need to sell to you in this article.
Whether it was pressed upon you by your pre-school teachers, demanded by your parents, or the result of a natural inclination to read, many of us have understood the importance of reading from a very young age.
If asked, 90% of people will enthusiastically tell you that reading is good because it “expands your mind”, “forces you to think”, and “teaches you discipline”.
These are all true of course, but few of us really understand why reading is so important. Very few people can tell you, exactly, what it is that reading gives you that other forms of entertainment cannot.
If pressed, few people can actually put into words why they enjoy reading for themselves.
An even more difficutl task would be putting the value of reading into words that make sense to others.
That’s what we’re going to do in this article.
We’re going to try to answer a very straightforward question: why is reading good for our mind?
In doing so, we’ll touch on some other questions that may require less scientific approaches.
Why does reading make us feel the way it does?
Why does reading help people in times of need?
We’ll deal with these questions towards the end of the article.
First and foremost, we’ll focus on what most of our readers care about; cognition.
How does reading benefit cognitive function?
Why is it that reading is said to improve mental faculties, stave off mental decline, and bolster emotional stability?
Why is it that reading is so important for children?
Can reading really be said to be “jogging for the brain”?
Is reading really that special? Do other activities produce similar results?
Let’s find out, shall we?
As always, we aren’t going to try to answer every question in full. We will delve deep into some, and touch on others. The idea isn’t to provide a complete guide to reading from a neuroscience perspective. It is to give you a good basis for your own further research.
If you have any questions, please let us know in the comments section at the end.
Reading Gets The Mind Working
The obvious place to start is the fact that reading is in and of itself an activity.
One of the most basic things we can say about reading is that it requires you to do something.
That is certainly an important thing to consider.
While your imagination may wander when lying down, reading a book requires an entirely different level of engagement on your part.
You are much more involved in a book than in your own day dreams (well, that is true for most of us anyway).
You may think that other activities, such as watching television, require a little more engagement on your part than daydreaming. However, that doesn’t look to be the case.
It seems that the old “chewing gum for the eyes” adage applies quite nicely to television.
Watching TV, a movie, or anything like that requires even less mental activity than day dreaming, or even meditation (which seeks to remove all thought from your mind completely).
Rather than imagining the things you are reading about, or indeed, making up in your own head, television allows you to simply sit back and passively receive information.
This paper, published in 2011, set out to show the effect that reading acquisition had on overall brain development. The findings were not surprising: “According to this view, the intensive perceptual training that accompanies reading acquisition also improves early visual abilities, suggesting that the impact of literacy on the visual system is more widespread than originally proposed.”
From this study it appears that reading is a kind of visual exercise, activating the key areas of the brain associated with visual information processing.
People who have learned to read have significantly more developed visual processing ‘hardware’ than illiterates. That shows just how much exercise reading gives your brain; enough to make a lasting and sizable physical difference.
Clearly, reading at least puts our brains to work.
In a sense then, reading is somewhat like “jogging for the brain”.
Is that a particularly good thing?
If you care at all about promoting long-term brain health and functionality, then it absolutely is important!
An Active Brain Is A Healthy Brain
We now know that regular exercise, both anaerobic and aerobic, decreases the risk of developing dementia, Alzheimer’s, and other degenerative diseases.
Regular exercise seems to lower the incidence of age-related memory loss, and improves the mental health of people of all ages.
Indeed, jogging is as much exercise for your brain and your mind as it is for your body.
Well, so is reading.
In putting your brain to work, you are effectively ‘exercising’ it, keeping it ticking over, and in a state of good use.
A look at some of the most notable clinical trials is enough to prove this point.
If you are interested in the link between Alzheimer’s Disease, Dementia, and reading, it would be worth checking out this article from the Fisher Center for Alzheimer’s Research Foundation. It is quite confidently titled Reading Keeps Alzheimer’s At Bay.
The authors discuss a study in which lifetime habits were measured against the incidence of Alzheimer’s disease and general memory loss: “Our study suggests that exercising your brain by taking part in activities such as these across a person’s lifetime, from childhood through old age, is important for brain health in old age”.
Amazingly, the protecting effect of reading, solving puzzles, and so on seemed to work even when physical damage was already present: “Even when people had plaques and tangles and other signs of damage to their brains, mental stimulation seemed to help protect memory and thinking skills, accounting for about 14 percent of the difference in decline beyond what would be expected.”
Pretty amazing, right?
In this trial, researchers looked at the effect that reading and arithmetic problem solving had on cognitive function. They looked exclusively at people aged 70-86.
The researchers reached a strong conclusion: “This study shows that daily mental training can improve cognitive functions in normal adults.”
The researchers were right to point out the limits of brain training as it is currently sold to the public: “Although general interests in brain training have been increasing in the public, evidence for its beneficial effects, particularly the positive transfer effect on non-targeted cognitive function still remains insufficient.”
Indeed, “brain training” doesn’t seem to specifically improve things like memory, focus, or other general cognitive functions.
But as we explain in our full article on brain training, it does keep the brain active, and that is important for long term brain functionality.
Indeed, the idea that brain stimulation helps preserve cognition seems to be somewhat supported by associated links between mind-numbing, passive pursuits and cognitive decline.
As this study found, people who watched a lot of television and got little physical exercise experienced much greater midlife cognitive decline than their peers. This is perhaps one of the first robust scientific inquiries to show a link between TV watching and cognitive decline.
So is that where the secret of reading lies?
In its ability to keep our brain’s active? Or at least more active than letting ourselves turn to cabbages watching TV?
This is a notable benefit of reading, for sure. But the effect reading has on our brain goes much deeper.
New research has found that reading influences our brain on a very physical level, activating specific brain regions, and changing the way they communicate with one another.
What Happens In the Brain When We Read?
Cutting edge research is now suggesting that reading has a lasting physical effect on the brain.
By that we mean that reading seems to alter the physical structure of the brain, improving connectivity between diverse brain regions.
It actually seems possible that reading alone can stimulate the brain cell growth, with neurons seemingly forming more connections between one another as a direct result of reading.
For a bit of an introduction to this idea, we need look no further than the Fisher Center for Alzheimer’s Research Foundation article cited above. Here, the authors touched on present research in this area:
“These findings support the so-called cognitive reserve hypothesis of mental function. According to this theory, mentally challenging tasks help to maintain and build brain cells and connections between brain cells. Later in life, these connections help to compensate for damage to the brain caused by Alzheimer’s and dementia – or just plain old age – thereby helping to preserve memory and thinking skills.
Other studies have shown that mentally challenging tasks can help to build brain cells and connections. Researchers have documented increased brain volume among people who engaged in such diverse cognitive activities as studying for medical exams, apprenticing as a London taxi driver, deciphering mirrored words or Morse codes, learning novel color names and performing brainteasers.”
This is, of course, easy to validate by looking at some of the most recent clinical studies into reading and brain connectivity.
Take a look at this article from Psychology Today, which discusses the steady decline in reading habits in the US, as well as the fact that reading can improve, perhaps even forge connections between disparate brain regions.
The article points out that, while literary theories have postulated that reading involves many aspects of brain function, neuroscience has until now failed to provide a model for this based on physical brain networks.
One study looking into this gave subjects a nightly reading assignment. Students were told to read a novel for a set time each night for nine nights in total. Brain scams were taken each morning while the students rested.
The brain scans revealed heightened connectivity within the subjects’ brains after each reading session. Amazingly, the researchers were able to pinpoint the exact areas being stimulated and increasingly interconnected. According to the findings, the three main areas being integrated by reading involved language comprehension, visual information processing, and surprisingly, movement:
“The anterior (front) bank of the sulcus contains neurons that control movement of parts of the body…the posterior (rear) bank contains neurons that receive sensory input from the parts of the body. Enhanced connectivity here was a surprise finding, but it implies that, perhaps, the act of reading puts the reader in the body of the protagonist.”
By forging new connections between different areas of the brain, reading is enhancing the brain’s ability to communicate effectively, to process different types of information at once, and to co-ordinate responses.
Brain inter-connectivity is the very basis of cognition; your brain is, after all, just a big self-contained network of nodes communicating with one another, piecing together information and controlling outputs.
Making this communication process more efficient will have a genuine, lasting effect on cognitive function.
Indeed, by encouraging inter-connectivity between areas of the brain not usually in contact with one another (physical movement and visual stimulus processing), reading is pushing your brain into a completely new level of operating.
As the study author noted, this seems to arise specifically from reading’s ability to make our mind mentally ‘act out’ the actions of the protagonist. In reading about a man walking down stairs in very cold weather, our brain triggers many of the same neurons it would were we actually walking down stairs in cold weather.
This doesn’t come as a surprise to those of you who know full well that reading on a regular basis has a huge impact on our ability to place ourselves into other people’s shoes, so to speak.
The general benefit of this is enhanced brain connectivity. However, this is a very important benefit in and of itself.
In fact, this may well be one of the most profound benefits of reading.
Reading & Theory Of Mind
We have long known that reading makes you better at putting yourself in someone else’s position, understanding the feelings of others, empathizing with the problems others face, etc.
After all, you may only see the super rich putting on a brave face for the public, but once you’ve read a novel about a fictitious billionaire’s lonely existence, you might be more inclined to see through the public veneer and acknowledge that their real life might be much harder than we imagine.
The same is true of literally any situation where our view is usually restricted to external appearances.
Reading lets us get into the mind of another human, and to see the world through their eyes.
We are naturally prone to diminish the problems of others and to emphasize the importance of our own. Reading can be a wonderful cure for that, particularly when reading about something particularly harrowing, or historical fiction set in a turbulent time.
The ability to understand the feelings of other people is often referred to as Theory of Mind, or ToM for short (in much of the literature). This is basically short-hand for our ability to understand that other people have minds, and that they will go through many of the same feelings as us. That is at least our understanding of theory of mind.
As with most things today, we have managed to quantify this effect and resoundingly prove its veracity.
We strongly advise you to read this paper on Theory of Mind and how it is improved through engagement with artworks.
The authors looked at numerous studies in which participants engaged with a work of art; namely, fiction. The effect of reading fiction on ToM was compared to reading nothing at all, reading non-fiction, or “popular fiction”, taken here to mean fairly simplistic novels with little deep engagement required.
The authors of the study claimed that their review found ToM to be improved through engagement with ‘literary fiction’ with little doubt at all: “It is specifically literary fiction that facilitates ToM processes suggest that reading literary fiction may lead to stable improvements in ToM”.
They then more broadly postulated that engagement with any work of art was sufficient to bring about the desired effect. But what is clear is that reading, or at least reading high quality fiction, has a significant effect on your ability to understand the motivations, feelings, and circumstances of other people.
Henry is a long-time contributor to this site. He has years of experience both using natural nootropic supplements, enhancing productivity, and generally making himself a more efficient, effective, healthier person. He mainly writes about natural cognitive enhancement (through diet, behavior, practices, etc).