Since you were a child, you've probably been told to read because "it's good for you." Parents and doctors, teachers and librarians — even me on this very site — have touted the many health and wellness benefits of books, but has anyone every told you what reading does to your brain? You might be surprised to find out exactly what happens in your head when you crack open a book.
Reading is perhaps one of the best hobbies in the world, and one of the healthiest. Whether you're reading fiction or nonfiction, a newspaper or a poem, reading is not only educational and informative, it's entertaining and relaxing, too. And, although it is still a widely unexplored area, research on reading has shown its many benefits.
Over the years, doctors, scientists, and researchers have confirmed that reading is a stress-reducing activity that can lower your heart rate and blood pressure. It's been proven to improve people's memories, increase brain power, and even enhance empathic skills. Reading has even been linked to longer life spans.
So how exactly does reading do all that? Like so many other human phenomenons, it all starts with the brain. It may not feel like it, but when we are looking at words on the page, our brain is running several simultaneous processes, from word analysis and auditory detection to vocalization and visualization, to the experience we know and love called reading.
It's a magical, and still somewhat mysterious process, but here are five ways reading affects your brain, and what it means to your life.
1Reading heightens brain connectivity.
It's not uncommon for people to say that a book has changed their life, but did you know reading a novel can actually change the brain? Researchers at Emory University's Center for Neuropolicy have found that reading a narrative can cause changes in the brain, not only while participating in the activity but in resting-state connectivity, too. What exactly does that mean?
According to the study, when we read, the connection between the left temporal cortex of the brain — the area associated with language reception — is heightened. What's more, that heightened activity continues for several days following reading.
2It puts readers in the characters' shoes, figuratively and biologically.
According to the same study by Emory University, reading not only heightens the connectivity in the temporal cortex, but it also increases activity in the central sulcus of the brain, or region responsible for primary sensory motor activity. When we read, neurons in this area of the brain activate to create a sensation of not just reading about the action of the book, but experiencing the sensations it is describing.
For example, if you're reading a passage from Harry Potter where he is running away from the Dementors, the neurons associated with the physical act of running are actually activated. A phenomenon known as grounded cognition, reading doesn't only figuratively put you in someone else's shoes, it literally does that through the biology of the brain.
3It rewires the brain and creates new white matter.
Want to improve communication within the brain? Just crack open a book, because according to researchers at Carnegie Mellon University, reading exercises —at least in children, according to the study — can alter brain tissue in positive ways.
In 2009, scientists Timothy Keller and Marcel Just uncovered evidence that intense reading improvement instructions in young children actually causes the brain to physically rewire itself. In doing so, the brain creates more white matter which improves communication within the brain. The results suggest that reading deficits in children can point to specific problems in the brain's circuits that can be treated and improved with reading.
5It increases the capacity of your working memory.
A neurobiologically challenging activity, reading is the best kind of workout for your brain for so many reasons. Chief among them is the ability to improve memory, but how exactly does absorbing written information increase your brain's capacity for memory?
Reading involves several brain functions, including visual and auditory processes, phonemic awareness, fluency, comprehension, and more. According to the ongoing research at Haskins Laboratories for the Science of the Spoken and Written Word, reading, unlike watching or listening to media, gives the brain more time to stop, think, process, and imagine the narrative in from of us. This increased mental activity helps keep your memory sharp much in the way lifting weights keeps your muscles toned. Reading and processing what is written, from the letters to the words to the sentences to the stories themselves, boosts brain activity.
5It expands a reader's attention span.
Another side effect of this incredible brain workout, reading not only improves memory, but in increases attention spans, too. Because of the sequential narrative style of most books — a beginning, middle, and end — reading encourages the brain to think similarly in sequence, and thus spend more time on building a story rather than rushing through each detail.
According to neuroscientist Susan Greenfield and her book Mind Change, the internet has improved users' capacity for short-term memory and ability to multi-task, but it can actually split our attention, unlike reading. When we read a novel, we read linearly, rather than sporadically jumping from tab to tab, and slowly think about the information in front of us. This exercise of taking time to process the narrative, to think about the complex layers of the story and how they fit together, actually increases the capacity for longer attention spans, especially in children.