While it’s rarely argued that reading nonfiction is a productive learning experience, when it comes to reading fiction, the opinions aren’t so clear cut. But the truth is, reading in any capacity is an amazing exercise for our brain. It doesn’t matter if we’re reading for pleasure or we’re looking to download decades of experience to improve our life or career; reading is an important skill to continually practice.
Bookworms have forever been getting lost inside stories, and, it turns out there’s a lot happening in our brain when we read. More importantly, it doesn’t matter whether it’s fiction or nonfiction. In fact, reading a variety of genres stimulates different areas in our brain, ensuring that no matter what we read, we’re exercising our brain in important ways. To embrace this focus on diversified reading, we want to explore more of the surprising ways reading your favorite book impacts your brain.
Reading Physically Changes The Brain
New studies are showing that reading actually creates new white matter in the brain. White matter is important because it carries the neural signals to all areas of the brain, boosting the processing speed for our grey matter to work faster.
Researchers noticed significant differences in the white matter of adults who read frequently versus those who didn’t. By working backwards and starting with children as young as six, they were able to test and measure the development of white matter from an early reading age. Over a three year period, the kids who read more strengthened and grew white matter, where the children who did not read actually showed a decline in their white matter levels.
White matter matters. Countless studies have shown it’s vital to learning, but maintaining healthy levels of white matter is important in fighting other brain-related diseases such as dementia, Alzheimer’s, as well as reducing the risk of strokes. Even more alarming, decreased levels of white matter have been associated with physical symptoms impacting things like balance and problems with physically multitasking, for example walking while we talk.
The good news is with dedicated reading, white matter has been shown to increase significantly over a period of six months. Even better? Increased white matter has been shown to not just impact reading. Because white matter is the ethernet cable of the brain, increased information processing in areas other than reading were also significantly improved.
Stories Develop Empathy
Bookworms have forever been getting lost in stories. Ask any avid reader and they’ll tell you — reading is transformative. And there’s science to back that up.
Studies have shown that reading a story activates the central sulcus, which is the area of our brain responsible for our motor skills. This means when we read about running through a maze or solving a riddle in a dark cave, the areas associated with physically doing those activities lights up. We literally are what we read, and this sensory immersion is instrumental in developing and strengthening empathy.
Stories also allow us to walk in someone else’s shoes. We are submersed into a characters narrative, feeling what they feel, thinking what they think. This stimulates us to ask questions, both of the character and of ourselves. How would we handle the situation? Can we relate? This type of questioning is key in developing empathy and when we make an active choice to diversify our reading, these empathetic tendencies increase even more.
There are a multitude of ways we develop empathy. We challenge our beliefs, experience the world from a different perspective, explore other environments, and examine our own inherent biases. And reading does all of that.
Books Increase Cognitive Functionality
There’s a reason readers insist the book is always better. When we read, our brain is working in ways that visual media simply doesn’t activate. In fact, reading is one of the best ways to exercise the entire brain because it is far more demanding on our brain than image processing alone.
When we read, we are forced to pay attention and recreate each word, each sentence, each paragraph, each page, individually and then collectively into a narration we can understand. This is why it doesn’t matter what we’re reading, simply doing it boost multiple areas of cognitive functionality.
Reading utilizes and improves our phonemic awareness. This is the skill of understanding the individual sounds that make up words. As we read, we are identifying these sounds, making understanding new words easier. It’s also why sometimes we mispronounce words that we’ve only read and never heard. Our phonemic awareness works within the rules of sound and syllables as we understand them. As we expand and broaden our reading, we increase our comprehension and fluency at the same time, not to mention improving our vocabulary.
Constructing these narratives in our imaginations have even more benefits. Having to remember multiple storylines, plot points, and character arcs lengthens and strengthens our attention span. The more we read, the more we can think in longer sequences. Our focus sharpens and our concentration improves.
As we read, we exercise our working memory, building those brain muscles in areas like event processing. This cause and effect cognition is important in improving our problem-solving abilities and extends beyond reading comprehension. Improved working memory also involves strengthened recall, as our visual and auditory processes are stimulated as we picture the words, sounds, and actions as we read.
Opinions range far and wide on almost every subject, and reading is no exception. Some tout nonfiction as the only genre worth reading as it provides factual information about real life events. Others will dismiss specific genres inside of the fictional annals, believing for example, that classics are the only literature of worth. But the neuroscience doesn’t support any of this. In fact, study after study shows that reading in any capacity, in any genre, stimulates the brain while exercising a wide range of neural areas. So pick up that thriller or flip open the romantic comedy and spend time getting lost in an alternate reality today.