If you love reading you don’t really need any other excuses for indulging in your favourite pastime. But what if I told you that the benefits of reading have been scientifically proven? It might sound too good to be true, but it’s not. There are hundreds of scientific studies out there that prove that reading is genuinely good for you. So, let’s discover how indulging in a little reading everyday can make your life better in the long run.
Reading Makes Us Happier
Have you ever felt your mood improve after reading? Or wondered why a book stays with you for days after you’ve finished? Well, it might actually be grounded in biological science. According to research conducted by Gregory Bern at Emory College, reading a novel may cause changes in the resting-state connectivity of the brain. And the changes can actually persist for at least a few days after the novel has been finished. Which is really just a fancy was of saying that reading can make you feel happy for days after you’ve finished.
“It really doesn’t matter what book you read, 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.” – Dr. Lewis
Interestingly, though, Science really is on the side of spending longer periods reading. According to this study, speed reading doesn’t work if you want to feel the benefits of reading. I don’t know about you, but I don’t really need an excuse to spend an afternoon day curled up in my favourite chair with a book. But now I have one!
Reading Reduces Stress
Not only does reading make us happier, it’s also one of the best stress reducers out there. It’s even said to be better than common stress relievers like walking or listening to music. In fact, studies have found that the stress levels of those who read can reduce by 68%. Even better, researchers at Sussex University discovered that participants in their study only needed to read for six minutes before the desired stress release was felt. That’s impressive!
The reason behind this is that when we read our mind has to focus completely on the task in hand. This shifts our attention away from what we are stressed or worried about and allows our brain to, essentially, switch off the worry. The distraction of being taken into a literary world then eases the tensions in muscles and the heart causing physical symptoms of stress to lessen.
For those interested, listening to music was the second most relaxing activity after reading, followed by having a cup of tea or coffee. No word on whether indulging in all three at once would be the perfect way to relax, but I’m willing to take part in the study that tries to find out!
Reading Makes Us More Empathetic
We all know that reading about different cultures, places and times than our own can have a positive effect on the way we see the world. But, a new study by VU University in The Netherlands has found that reading has an impact on how empathetic we are.
Readers who invested time in reading literary fiction for over a week were discovered to have heightened empathy. The key in this equation appears to be reading fiction. It was discovered that compared to readers of non-fiction, those who frequently read fiction are found to have more of an emotional response to what they read. Logical perhaps, as the only time I’ve found myself weeping over ‘The Molecular Structure of Starch’ is when I remembered I had a biology exam the next day, which I would probably fail.
“It is only a novel… or, in short, only some work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour, are conveyed to the world in the best-chosen language” ― Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey
This ties in to what is known as ‘Theory of Mind’(ToM). ToM is the ability to measure or judge the thoughts and feelings of others and recognize that other people can have feelings, beliefs and judgments that differ from our own. Interestingly, this is a feature that is often found to be less prominent in people with Autistic Spectrum Disorders. In the case of this study, when readers of fiction underwent common ToM tests, they were found to be consistently better at recognizing the emotions of other people around them.
Reading Develops Your Attention Span & Improves Your Memory
Are you still reading this? If you are, well done! I’m asking because apparently the average human attention span is now less than a fish. This is worrying for a number of reasons, but key is how a lack of focus can impact our brains in the long run. We flit from page to page, we scan news bulletins without really taking time to digest information. 24-hour news coverage means that we, effectively, have information spoon fed to us. It’s fantastic, but it can also have a detrimental effect.
It’s also changed our reading habits. The Pew Research Center revealed that one-quarter of American adults hadn’t read a single book last year. Of course, that means that three quarters have, but it’s still an insightful statistic. However, one of the benefits of reading for longer stretches of time is improved memory and attention. In fact, people who read consistently can often exhibit greater memory and mental agility throughout their lives. So although the delayed gratification and commitment required to read a book goes against our online reading habits it just might be good for our brain in the long run.
Reading for sustained periods of time may also help prevent of memory loss later in life. A study conducted published in Neurology has shown that those who read and indulge in attention demanding activities, like reading, throughout their lives showed a slower ‘late-life cognitive decline.’
Reading Can Help Us Get A Better Night Sleep
This one is part urban myth, part fact! Of course, the benefits of reading the most boring book you can find is that it will help you fall asleep no matter where you are, or what time of day! But according to research, reading for at least six minutes before you go to sleep can help you get a better night sleep.
The key to success here is to do this regularly. Establishing, and sticking to, a bedtime routine can help your sleep become more restful. Basically, if you read every night before you go to bed your brain begins to recognise this as a signal to start winding down. Then, combined with the proven stress relief qualities of reading you end up in the perfect frame of mind to curl up and get a good night’s sleep.
“I love the silent hour of night, For blissful dreams may then arise, Revealing to my charmed sight What may not bless my waking eyes.”- Anne Brontë
Another factor to consider here is that, while reading a book will help you wind down and get ready for sleep, reading from an eBook reader or worse your phone screen can potentially have the opposite effect. The blue light produced by our technology actually has the opposite effect, causing our brains to become more switched on, which is obviously not the goal here! So, switch off the technology and crack open a book, you’ll feel better for it in the morning.
The Benefits of Reading Are Still Being Discovered
Believe it or not, the list goes on. A study conducted by the National Endowment for the Arts even found that reading can make you more engaged in civic and cultural activities. So, contrary to the shy bookworm stereotype readers are actually more likely to get out there and get involved in their community! Not only are readers more likely to vote, they’re actually more likely to exercise. That all sounds like a bit of work to me, but since you’ve been reading this for a while now it’s time do a few star jumps (exercise!) and then cosy up in a chair and pick your next book to read!
Soon you’ll be a happier, engaged, stress-free, empathetic, more-alert, sleepy, memory champion…sounds good right?!
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