reading brain health,, brain health, cognitive stimulation

Must-Read: The Brain Health Benefits of Reading

By Alma Erro | December 3rd, 2021

Science shows that reading is one among other intellectual activities that is intricately linked with our brain health and social skills.

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, book sales have soared and reading has become more popular. It has even been rediscovered by younger generations through social media. Reading is an important skill, which has many beneficial impacts on the brain.

Reading and Social Skills

Reading activates multiple areas of the brain, but it improves aspects of a person’s communication and social skills. One study asked separated participants into three groups: literary fiction, popular fiction, and nonfiction.  They read texts from their genre and completed established tests of the theory of mind (ToM), that being the phenomenon of understanding other people’s mental states and actions. The study authors wrote, “​​Experiment 1 showed that reading literary fiction, relative to nonfiction, improves performance on an affective ToM task. Experiments 2 to 5 showed that this effect is specific to literary fiction.”

Research has also found that fiction may help improve empathy. When explaining his reasoning, Keith Oatley, a researcher who studied fiction at the University of Toronto, calls it “a simulator of social worlds,” writing: “Fiction is the simulation of selves in interaction. People who read it improve their understanding of others.”

“Fiction can be thought of as a form of consciousness of selves and others that can be passed from an author to a reader or spectator, and can be internalized to augment everyday cognition,” Oatley wrote in an article.

Researchers have also found that reading may be the most effective way to de-stress. A 2009 study found that reading reduces stress by 68 percent, higher than all other tested activities such as listening to music. With just six minutes of reading, they found that readers experienced a clear, beneficial change in heart rate and muscle tension.

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Kindle or paperback?

The popularity of Kindles and other digital reading devices has been on the rise in recent years, but research has shown that if choosing between tech and a good old-fashioned book, reading on paper backs more brain benefits than reading on screens. A study where students completed a reading comprehension test (half on paper, half on a PDF) found that people reading a PDF performed more poorly, comprehending less.

Indeed, studies show that you absorb much less when reading on a digital screen. Screen readers tend to practice “non-linear” reading, such as skimming or having your attention constantly shifting.  This can impair your ability to engage in deep reading and to reap the brain health benefits of reading.

Plus, on paper, researchers say, readers can orient themselves to where they are in the full context of the material. In other words, the physical form of the book serves as a map of the text — like a progress bar. For this reason, the goal-setting, rereading, and confirming understanding that often needs to happen to fully understand a text is easier on paper than in pixels. 

Get reading!

More is known than ever about reading and how it affects our brains, and one thing is clear: If you don’t use it, you’ll lose it. Reading has the magical ability to quickly reduce stress, improve one’s ability to connect to others, and allows one to stay sharp when aging.  

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