Anyone who has ever been abandoned by their bookish bestie on a Friday night, due to a page-turner that BFF just couldn’t put down knows one thing: readers think differently than other people. And anyone who has ever been that bestie knows: try as we might, we really can’t help it. (Although if I’m being honest, I don’t know how hard we actually try.) Whether it’s all that time spent in worlds not our own, or a side effect of all that printer’s ink we’re inhaling the fact remains that readers aren’t quite like anybody else — and reading positively affects the brain in ways that few other activities do.
From the totally scientific (think beefing up your white brain matter) to the ways that reading can make you a better (and yeah, OK, sometimes a whole lot less dependable) human being, taking in the written word on a regular basis has been shown to actually change not only the way your brain works, but the way you understand and engage with the world around you. So, cheers to having one more reason to finally buy all those books you’ve been squirrelling away in your Goodreads TBR.
Here are 7 ways readers think differently than others.
1. Readers Have More White Brain Matter
Jumping straight into the science here, reading has actually been shown to improve the health of your brain. Scientists looking into a six-month daily reading study at Carnegie Mellon discovered that the volume of white matter (that stuff responsible for carrying nerve impulses between neurons) in the language area of the brain actually increased. Stanford University researchers found reading exercises multiple complex cognitive functions and increases blood flow to different areas of the brain — all good stuff. With all that inner-noggin exercising going on, it’s no wonder readers think differently than non-readers.
2. Empathy, Empathy, Empathy
In addition to increased cognitive function, readers have also been show to demonstrate deeper empathy for others than their non-reader peers. Research by US social scientists has shown that reading literary novels (particular ones with strong social messages) actually helps improve a reader’s understanding of the feelings, emotions, and experiences of others. If you’ve ever been so absorbed in a book that the characters actually seem real to you, then you know why this is — anytime you step outside yourself and dive into the experience of others, your capacity for compassion and empathy is bound to grow, even if those experiences are fiction.
3. Book-Lovers Have Longer Attention Spans
Research has shown that story structure (think the traditional beginning, middle, and end sequence) encourages our brains to think in this sequence as well—teaching the brain to think in similar sequence, and searching for cause-and-effect links. The more you read, the more your brain is able to improve its ability to process a longer cause/effect structure, thereby increasing your attention span and improving your ability to focus for longer periods of time. Which means you can read for longer periods of time… Sounds like a win/win to me.
4. Readers Consider Backstory
In the same vein as the increased empathy many readers demonstrate, readers are also more likely to consider context and backstory before making snap judgments. (Based on an informal study conducted among myself and my most-readerly of pals.) After spending so much time in fictional worlds, where you’re privy to not only the actions of characters but their innermost thoughts as well, readers know that for every action there is a complicated context and backstory to go with it. This can make us a) super nosy, because we’ll want to know the deep psychology behind who you are and why you do the things you do or b) super patient, because we just assume there’s a reason, if known only to you, for why you’re behaving the way you are. This is especially helpful in traffic, long checkout lines, and when dealing with TSA agents.
5. Books vs. Other Plans: The Reader’s Great Debate
Here’s where we completely abandon the science and move into the realm of: things we’ve all witnessed but which nobody has developed a study for yet (to my knowledge, anyway.) If you’ve got an avid reader in your life (or if you are one yourself) then you know that readers will abandon practically anything else if there’s a good book to be read. This applies, but is not limited to: any and all plans with friends and/or significant others, Tinder dates, high school graduations, bat mitzvahs, dentist appointments, trips to the grocery story, weddings, baptisms, office parties, therapy sessions, doctor’s appointments, Father’s Day brunch, and anything to which one is required to RSVP. So, when I say "books vs. other plans" is “the reader’s great debate” what I really mean is: “we’re agonizing over how to tell you we’re not coming.” There’s really no debate. All future plans were broken the moment that book was pulled off the shelf.
6. Readers Budget With Books In Mind
Don’t pretend you haven’t done this yourself. Sitting at home on a Saturday night (because you already canceled all those plans in favor of reading) facing an Amazon cart filled with books and a fridge with exactly two apples and one can of soda. The books win every time, hands down. Pro tip: just make sure you prioritize that electric bill. Reading by candlelight is so 1878.
7. All Roads Lead Back To Reading
In the words of film’s most beloved independent bookstore owner, Kathleen Kelly: “So much of what I see reminds me of something I read in a book, when shouldn't it be the other way around?” For a reader, everything leads back to reading — things we see, places we travel, the people we’re drawn to, how we spend time and money, whether or not all our bookshelves are going to fit in that condo we’ve been eyeing, everything. So the next time the read in your life (or you!) does something a little offbeat, you can just shrug your shoulders and say: “Don’t worry. She’s just a reader.”