Most of us have been told from an early age that reading is good for us. However, if we asked why, it’s often something that we then puzzle at. Yes, reading improves our general knowledge but surely there’s got to be more benefits to reading than expanding our views? And there are, some of which may surprise you and inspire you to read more in the future.
For those with their noses in a book, reading is a pleasure. With an e-reader, you can have an ever-expanding library at your fingertips and entertainment on-hand during load-shedding. For those who enjoy the feel and smell of a book, there are new and second-hand book shops to explore. Or a library to borrow from. Reading can be a cheap and easy way of escaping, destressing and relaxing.
5 Psychological Benefits of Reading
Aside from keeping you occupied, science shows that reading improves empathy and creativity. As well as starving off dementia. Here 5 reasons why reading is good for your mental health and interpersonal relationships.
1. Reading Increases Empathy
In the mid-90s it was discovered that mirror neurons fire in our brains when we perform an action or see one performed by someone else. 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.
Keith Oatley, Professor Emeritus of Cognitive Psychology at the University of Toronto, unpacks the link between reading and empathy. According to him, the most important human characteristic is that our lives are social. He says that fiction can augment and help us understand our social experience. This is because when we read, we take a piece of fiction into our minds. And this piece of consciousness is thus being passed from the author’s mind to our own. Essentially, when we read something, we make it our own and in so can increase our level of empathy.
2. Reading Develops Agile Thinking
Agile thinking is a worthwhile skill to develop. This is because greater mental flexibility allows people to better adapt their thoughts and behaviours to evolving situations. And mentally agile people are more likely to seek new solutions rather than be led by habit. Which is something that is key to succeeding in the face of adversity and change.
Reading poetry and other tests requires readers to question meaning. When they do this, it has been shown to cause fascinating changes to patterns of brain activity. In one study, people were asked to read complex texts. After which they were asked to rate “poeticness” and how much they had to rethink meaning as they read. While doing so, their brain scans showed increased activity in key areas of the brain and heightened literary awareness. This shows that the sustained experience of reading poems and the appraisal of meaning might increase mental flexibility. As well as better acceptance of new meanings.
3. Reading Improves Rationality and Creativity
One study found that, after reading fiction, people have less of a “need for closure”. In this study, 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.
What these findings suggest is that fictional literature reading could lead to better procedures for the general processing of information. Professor Maja Djikic is a psychologist specialising in the field of personality development at the University of Toronto. She explains that due to the ambiguous nature of fiction, readers are forced to be more accepting of ambiguity. This is believed to be a key factor in creativity. Additionally, when you can entertain multiple perspectives, it’s easier to see new possibilities. Which consequently improves our rational processing.
4. Reading Enhances Brain Connectivity and Function
Stories have been shown to 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 this further. He says that despite participants not reading during their brain scan, it showed that they had retained heightened connectivity. This he calls “shadow activity” which is almost like muscle memory. The neural changes found are associated with physical sensation and movement systems. This suggests that reading a novel can transport you into the body of the protagonist. We already know that a good story can put you into someone’s shoes figuratively. However, this now shows that we are seeing a biological happening as well. Basically, our brain’s connectivity and function are continually being enhanced when we read.
5. Reading can help stave off Dementia
Brain-stimulating activities, like reading, have been shown to ward off mental decline. As well as conditions such as dementia and even Alzheimer’s. In fact, research found that older people who read have a 32% lower rate of declining mental abilities. This is because reading has been shown to put our brains into a state similar to meditation. In doing so reading brings the same health benefits of deep relaxation and inner calm. Regular readers have been shown to have lower stress levels and decreased rates of depression compared to non-readers. Additionally, readers tend to sleep better and have higher self-esteem.
Self-care and Reading
The physical and mental advantages that studies show reading mean that reading should be regarded as a part of self-care. Thus, not just seen as a good habit which expands our knowledge and transports us to new places. It’s a habit that can advantage us throughout our lives and could also lead to a better quality of life in our later years. What more motivation does one need to pick up a good book than this?
Mental Health Care
Are you interested in being part of assisting people to access mental health care and thereby better maintain their mental health? If so, look at studying one of the courses in the SACAP Applied Psychology faculty. Courses are available to study full-time, part-time and online. Contact a student advisor to discuss which course is best suited to your career objectives or enrol online today.
1. Can reading improve mental health?
Research shows that reading regularly reduces stress levels and rates of depression. As well as assists one to sleep better and can lead to improved self-esteem.
2. Why is it good to read as you get older?
Reading has been shown to assist people in decreasing the rate of mental decline. As well as delaying the onset of mental illnesses such as Alzheimer’s and dementia.
3. Is it good to read fiction?
Reading fiction has been shown to increase our ability to put ourselves in others’ shoes. Thereby helping to increase our capacity to empathise. Additionally, it can improve our creativity and rationality.