From improving empathy and creativity to staving off dementia, there are countless benefits to reading. So do yourself a favour – pick up a book.
- Storytelling can improve feelings of connectedness and fellowship. Literary fiction, in particular, may help increase our empathy for others.
- Writing that encourages readers to think deeply about the subject matter is said to improve mental flexibility.
- Frequent readers of fiction have been found to accept more ambiguous thoughts. Accepting ambiguity is believed to be a key to creativity.
- The positive changes in the brain caused by reading seem to continue even once the reading has stopped, thus pointing to the long-term benefits of reading.
- Activities that stimulate the brain – like reading – are thought to help prevent dementia.
For those of us who have spent many a day with our nose in a book, it’s little surprise that recent research shows that reading can be good for your mental health as well as your interpersonal relationships.
Here are five psychological benefits to reading, and the science to prove them:
1. Reading makes us more empathetic
Mirror neurons, neurons that fire in our brains when we perform an action ourselves or see an action performed by someone else, were discovered in the mid-90s. Their discovery led to a better understanding of the neuroscience of empathy.
One study found that literary fiction, which simulates our everyday lives, increases our ability to feel empathy for others. Participants were given either literary fiction or nonfiction reading material and, once done, they were given an empathy test. Those that read the literary fiction proved to have the most empathic response.
“The most important characteristic of being human is that our lives are social. Fiction can augment and help us understand our social experience,” says Keith Oatley, professor emeritus of cognitive psychology at the University of Toronto. “A piece of fiction … [is] a piece of consciousness being passed from mind to mind. When you’re reading, you’re taking in a piece of consciousness that you make your own,” he explains.
2. Reading makes us more mentally flexible
The reading of poetry and other texts that require the reader to question meaning has shown to cause fascinating changes to patterns of brain activity. In one study, people were asked to rate texts on the basis of their “poeticness” and how much they had to rethink meaning while reading. When reading more complex texts, brain scans showed increased activity in key areas of the brain as well as heightened literary awareness.
“The research found that the sustained experience of reading poems might … increase mental flexibility through the process of the reappraisal of meaning and the acceptance of new meaning,” says one of the study’s authors, Professor Philip Davis, Director of the Centre for Research into Reading, Literature and Society at the University of Liverpool.
According to Professor Davis, greater mental flexibility allows people to better adapt their thoughts and behaviours to evolving situations – people of greater mental flexibility are more likely to seek out new solutions rather than just being led by habit.
3. Reading improves rationality and creativity
Reading has repeatedly been linked to creativity. One study found that, after reading fiction, people have less of a “need for closure”.
Here participants were asked to read either an essay or a short story. Once finished their need for cognitive closure was assessed. The short story readers, when compared to the essay readers, illustrated a significant decrease in their need for cognitive closure. The effect was particularly strong for participants who were habitual readers.
“These findings suggest that reading fictional literature could lead to better procedures for processing information generally, including those of creativity,’ says one of the study’s authors, Professor Maja Djikic, a psychologist specialising in the field of personality development at the University of Toronto.
Professor Djikic explains that due to the ambiguous nature of fiction readers are forced to be more accepting of ambiguity, which is believed to be a key factor in creativity. “When you can entertain multiple perspectives, it is easier to see new possibilities,” she says.
4. Reading enhances brain connectivity and function
Research shows that stories impact the brain both psychologically and neurologically.
A study in which participants’ brains were scanned before, during, and five days after reading a novel found ongoing neurological changes. The results showed that there were changes in the brain’s resting state after participants had finished reading the novel.
The study’s lead, American neuroscientist Professor Gregory Berns, explains: “Even though the participants were not actually reading the novel while they were in the scanner, they retained this heightened connectivity. We call that a ‘shadow activity’, almost like muscle memory. The neural changes that we found associated with physical sensation and movement systems suggest that reading a novel can transport you into the body of the protagonist. We already know that good stories can put you in someone else’s shoes in a figurative sense. Now we’re seeing that something may also be happening biologically.”
5. Reading can help stave off dementia
Brain stimulating activities, like reading, have been shown to ward off mental decline and conditions such as dementia and even Alzheimer’s.
One study found that people who read later in life have a 32% lower rate of declining mental abilities.
Reading has been shown to put our brains into a state similar to meditation, and it brings the same health benefits of deep relaxation and inner calm. Regular readers sleep better, have lower stress levels, higher self-esteem, and lower rates of depression than non-readers.
If reading leads to us treating ourselves and others better and staves of mental decline, what more motivation does one need to pick up a good book?