What’s the big deal with reading?
Reading is not only fun — it is good for us as well.
Just like going to the gym is a great workout for our bodies, reading a novel is exercise for our minds.
Reading makes us smarter, happier, less stressed, and more empathetic.
To fully experience a story, we turn on parts of our emotions and imaginations we might hardly use otherwise.
In some cases, we can fool our brains into thinking we’ve experienced the acts we’ve only read in novels which ignites our empathetic responses.
Reading can be a truly transformative experience.
How does reading affect our brains?
Reading different books highlights different parts of the brain.
A study at Stanford University revealed how reading different types of writing offered various benefits to the brain. Reading a dense piece of nonfiction stimulates different sections of our brain than reading an easier book.
The study concluded that close reading to understand a text’s message ultimately does have a more beneficial impact on the brain.
But make no mistake, reading for pleasure is working your brain muscles too.
Our brains can turn words into images.
Have you ever noticed that you don’t have to try to create images in your head when reading? The words on the page are translated into pictures in your head with very little effort on our consciousnesses. This is because visual imagery is automatic.
Researchers have found that we identify images faster if we read a written description of them.
Hearing words can have a similar impact. Remember back to when you were in grade school and your class visited the school library for story time with the librarian. Hearing the librarian read the story conjured images in your head. You saw the story play out like a movie in your mind without much effort at all.
When we hear a story, the language processing parts of our brain light up.
The same response happens when we tell personal stories in everyday conversations. Listening to the stories of your coworkers, friends, and family is actually a great exercise for your brain.
Reading in foreign languages increases the size of our brains.
If you really want to push the elasticity of your brain, try reading in a foreign language. At Lund University in Sweden, researchers found that those who read regularly in a foreign language experience increases in the size of their hippocampus and cerebral cortex.
These candidates have superior language skills than those in the control group. Likewise, their ability to feel empathetic is more well-rounded.
Reading invites more empathy into our everyday lives.
Reading allows us to drift away from the stressful and emotional buzzing of our everyday lives in favor of a refreshing perspective and story.
As this escape occurs, our minds and hearts become more open to feeling what the characters feel.
If you’ve ever experienced a deep connection to a character, you know what this feels like.
When reading, we drop mental and emotional barriers. We open up to more empathetic experiences.
The more we engage in this kind of activity, the more it becomes a habit and blends into our everyday routine, thus making us more empathetic to people in real life.
Reading improves our writing and conversational skills.
Perhaps one of the most interesting studies done regarding reading and how it changes the brain was published in 2009 when scientists Timothy Keller and Marcel Just discovered that reading actually rewires brain tissues. The study focused primarily on children, showing how consistent reading from a young age can help rewire a child’s brain and increase connectivity.
The quality of white matter, which is the brain tissue that transmits signals between grey matter (where information is stored and processed), improved dramatically in children aged 8–10 who read regularly.
As we age, reading helps us learn how to correctly use language and structure sentences. It also makes us more articulate in our speech — something you might notice if you talk with a child who reads regularly.
Reading can help us strengthen our worldview.
Reading widely can be a person’s greatest strength.
In reading a story about a life vastly different than our own or from the perspective we might never have experienced before, our perception of the world changes and accommodates these perspectives.
Reading invites our minds to travel without ever leaving our couches.
We learn to see the world from more than our own point of view, garnering a glimpse into some else’s life, into someone else’s world. That is perhaps the greatest power of stories.
Reading really does matter.
Reading does miraculous things for your brains.
It can change the ways we perceive ourselves and the world.
It forces us to think in nuanced ways that allow us to expand our head space.
It makes us more empathetic and articulate.
By reading even just ten minutes a day, you will reap the benefits. Even though you can’t feel it, your brain is working, growing, and evolving.
So, help your brain — go curl up with a good book!
Audrey Webster (WNBA-NYC) is a media editorial assistant at Macmillan Learning working on titles for Communication and College Success. She received her Bachelor of Arts in English from the University of Oregon. After graduating in 2017, she moved to New York City to attend the Summer Publishing Institute at New York University and pursue a career in publishing.
Born and raised in a tiny town on the Oregon coast, Audrey’s trek cross-country to the Big Apple has been an incredible adventure. Audrey serves as the social media manager for the WNBA‘s New York chapter. When she isn’t brainstorming for the next bookish social post, she can be found wandering the Met, catching a movie at the Angelika theater, exploring Prospect Park in Brooklyn, curled up somewhere with a book or sitting at her laptop writing. She loves the outdoors, almond butter, thunderstorms and her cat, Theo. Connect with her her website or on Instagram.