The digital era has changed the way we read. According to a study from the Pew Research Center, the average American is reading fewer books than they were forty years ago, with only 31% of the population reading at least one book a year. This is a 10% decline in overall reading habits. So, why are people reading less?
It may seem simplistic to say technology, but the availability of social media, streaming apps, and access to the Internet has provided a welcome distraction to many people who are overworked and overwhelmed. And there are plenty of digital resources for anyone to access news, stories, and other reading material that condense the content into bite-sized pieces. Studies show that the average reading time online is approximately 55 seconds, which isn’t nearly long enough to see the amazing brain benefits reading can provide.
There are numerous reasons to read a pick ranging from learning something new, getting an in-depth perspective on a topic, and simply enjoying a story for entertainment. Beyond that, reading is also good for your brain. Here are ten reasons why you should make reading a habit.
1. Strengthens Your Brain
Reading lights up your entire brain. A 2013 study out of Emory University measured readers MRI scans as they read a book. They found that the deeper readers went into the story, the more areas of their brain activated. Even more surprisingly, this activity stayed elevated for several days after participants finished the book. The more you read, the stronger these complex networks of activity become.
These findings led to researchers wanting to understand why the somatosensory and motor cortex—the area of your brain that responds to movement, sensations, and pain—remained active long after a book was finished. Researchers believe that reading puts your brain in the body of the protagonist and alters the activity in these areas as a result.
Research out of Boston Children’s Hospital showed that reading can rewire your brain, create new neural networks, and strengthen the white matter in the corpus callosum, which enhances communication between the two brain hemispheres. This allows you to process information more efficiently, helping you learn faster. They also found that reading strengthens your visual and auditory comprehension, particularly if you’re listening to someone read out loud. A 2011 study upheld these findings, showing that while starting a reading habit as a child is ideal, you can enjoy these powerful brain benefits at any age.
2. Reduces Your Stress
According to a 2009 study conducted at Sussex University, reading reduces your stress levels by up to 68%. In as little as six minutes of being immersed in a book, your heart rate slows, your blood pressure lowers, and your muscles begin to relax. To enjoy the long-term benefits of reading, research suggests that thirty minutes of daily reading dramatically impacts the physical symptoms of stress. It doesn’t matter what type of book you read—including audiobooks—as long as you’re able to focus on reading without interruptions.
Reading with your child can also decrease your stress while increasing your parent-child bond. A 2020 study from the Journal of the American Psychological Association found that parents who read to their children daily from the ages of six to eighteen months had lower stress levels, were more sensitive to their children’s needs, and were warmer to their children. The shared reading time sharpens the emotional bond you have with your children, while the lower stress levels help elevate your mood, leading to an increase in other behaviors such as patience, tolerance, and empathy.
Cultivating a daily reading habit can not only help keep you grounded, especially when you’re facing difficult times, it can become cherished bonding time for you and your children.
3. Expands Your Knowledge
In this digital era, it might be easy to believe that you can only get useful information from YouTube videos. But as American writer and illustrator Tomie dePaola says, “Reading is important because if you can read, you can learn anything about everything and everything about anything.” A YouTube video can help you understand the topic, but short videos don’t allow you to swim into the vast depths of the subject matter.
In fact, while it may be tempting to believe that multimedia can expand or increase learning, research indicates that the positive impact seen from these types of teaching styles are minimal without reading as the core teaching module. Additionally, higher reading comprehension has been correlated with greater scientific literacy.
Books are written from decades of experience, which is impossible to deliver in just a few minutes of video content. Digital sources of information are useful and might help you get started on your research, but to go beyond the surface and gain profound knowledge in any subject, you need the expansive knowledge reading brings.
4. Enhances Creativity and Imagination
Reading helps you expand your own imaginative world. As you read, your occipital lobe is activated, the area of your brain responsible for processing visual information. This is particularly effective while reading fiction, as imagining the worlds and characters an author describes helps you visualize what you’re reading. You’re taking an abstract concept and making it real in your mind.
A joint 2007 study between Appalachian State University and Angelo State University found that undergraduate college students who read for pleasure had higher levels of creativity, more positive perceptions of their professors, were eager to learn, and achieved their academic goals easier. Another 2009 study showed a significantly higher correlation in college students who read for pleasure versus creativity than those who didn’t.
The more you read, the easier creativity gets, and you’ll start applying your creative visualization to other areas of your life. In addition, the occipital lobe is also responsible for decision making, which means the more you exercise this area of your brain, the better your decision-making processes will be.
5. Improves Your Memory
A good memory is a valuable asset in our fast-paced world. If you fail to remember important things like client names, work assignments, or after-school activities, you can lose time, money, and most importantly, relationships.
Studies show that reading improves memory through constantly engaging your brain. You’re working your verbal recall while keeping your short-term and long-term memory activated as you track the information or story line, depending on the type of book. This is episodic memory, but reading also strengthens your working memory, which is your capacity to hold information in your brain while working on different tasks. Both of these types of memory decline as you age and studies have showed that in elderly patients, those who read every day for eight weeks showed significant improvement in both episodic and working memory.
This consistent activity helps keep neural pathways healthy, which can prevent cognitive decline as you age.The more you read, the more neural activity occurs in your brain. This leads to more neural productivity while also strengthening the various pathways in your brain. These pathways improve overall cognitive functioning, which helps your ability to actively recall information.
6. Improves Your Concentration and Focus
Technology trains you to be distracted. Did you know that it takes twenty-three minutes to get your focus back on track after being distracted? Every time you stop one task because of a notification, you’re reinforcing the reward mechanism in your brain, making it harder to concentrate not just on whatever you’re doing in that moment, but with future tasks, as well.
A 2015 Canadian study found that between 2000 and 2015, the average attention span dropped from twelve seconds to an abysmal eight seconds. 77% of participants between 18–24 replied that the first thing they reach for when they have nothing occupying their attention is their phone compared to only 10% of individuals over 65. Another study found that elementary school kids with higher levels of reading comprehension can concentrate on tasks longer and had a higher visual reaction time.
When you block out undistracted reading time, you’re exercising your focus and concentration muscles. The longer you stay engaged in the book, the more you’re rewarding focus instead of distraction. This will help increase your attention span, making it easier to concentrate on day-to-day tasks. And the more you read, the longer you will train your attention span to be, making it easier to focus on difficult tasks.
7. Improve your Vocabulary
Language is more than simply choosing the right word. With over a million words in the English language alone, being able to communicate effectively comes down to knowing how to use the right words in any situation. When you come across words you don’t know while reading, you get the context of how that word is used. This helps you learn the word faster than if you were simply trying to memorize it because it gives you an example of how to use the word, not just a strict definition.
A 2015 from the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association studied the vocabulary levels of students from kindergarten to 10th grade. They found that above-average readers had a significantly higher rate of vocabulary growth between 4th grade and 10th grade. Researchers at the Centre for Longitudinal Studies found that adolescents who read for pleasure in their spare time knew 26% more words than their non-reading peers.
The more you read, the more language you’re exposed to, increasing your vocabulary one book at a time. Even better, the more words you learn, the faster you learn new words, and it only takes fifteen minutes of reading a day to see these amazing benefits.
8. Improve your communication skills
Every book is a compilation of word choices and writing techniques. They’re examples of how to communicate thoughts and emotions through gestures, body language, and dialogue. The ability to write is located in the parietal lobe, which is activated while reading.
Your brain stores the linguistic style of the books you read, which help you strengthen your ability to communicate clearly, both in written and verbal forms. But it also gives you different perspectives. You gain the ability to see things from someone else’s point of view. You encounter new ideas and gain new ways of looking at the world, and that empathy helps you interact more effectively with the people around you.
Reading subjects or stories that excite you also encourage communication as you seek people out to share your reading experience. You might join a book club where you’ll meet new people, or discover you share a love of reading with a new co-worker. The more people you engage with, the better your communication skills become.
9. Improve your mental health
Mental health has become a growing concern in today’s society. Depression and anxiety continue to rise as people feel more disconnected from friends and family in a digital age.
Reading helps you feel connected to the world in a unique way. You can read about characters who are struggling with the same issues you are, and that connection helps you feel visible and less alone. Studies indicate that identifying with a character going through a similar struggle alleviates feelings of isolation and loneliness in individuals. You can also find other people reading similar books that you are, and forge friendships based on your shared hobby. Reading groups and book clubs are fantastic ways to do this.
It builds empathy, which increases your ability to connect with people outside of fictional worlds. Studies continue to show that readers have higher empathy, better social ability, have better perspective, and a clearer understanding of human nature.
One new area of study is bibliotherapy. With the guidance of a therapist or mental health practitioner, you read, reflect, and discuss various pieces of literature, either individually or in a group. Research suggests that some patients benefit more from cognitive behavioral therapy when paired with bibliotherapy. Researchers have already found that bibliotherapy alleviates depressive symptoms in surgery patients and improves cognitive functionality in both patients with dementia and psychosis.
10. Reading is Entertainment
Ask any bookworm and they’ll tell you reading is addictive. Every time you close the cover, you think about the story, which triggers the release of dopamine. Studies have shown that anticipation is a powerful motivator, and your brain releases more dopamine while you’re anticipating an event than the event itself. No wonder so many bibliophiles can’t wait to end their day and settle in with a good book.
As far as addictions go, this one is harmless and can help provide endless opportunities to learn and improve, both personally and professionally. In the same way that puzzles are good for the brain, reading keeps your brain active and engaged, which leads to better brain health. Compare that with digital entertainment options like social media, movies, and television, and reading is by far the healthiest option.
Reading is a habit that can improve your lifespan by reducing your stress, enhancing your mental health, developing new neural pathways, helping you learn empathy, improving your ability to communicate, and providing you with healthy entertainment. There may be a lot of new hobbies in the digital world, but reading is one of the few habits that improve your lifespan. In fifteen to thirty minutes a day, you can enjoy all of these amazing brain benefits and set you on the path to unlock your limitless life.