5 science-backed reasons to pick up a book and read
It’s often tempting to spend our free time surfing the Web, checking Facebook, or catching up on sports scores. But in our always-connected world, many of us have also abandoned our love of reading. (Pedro Ribeiro Simoes / Flickr)
Published Thursday, October 15, 2015 6:00AM EDT
It’s often tempting to spend our free time surfing the Web, checking Facebook, or catching up on sports scores. But in our always-connected world, many of us have also abandoned our love of reading -- not the light reading we do every day, but the deep, lost-in-a-novel kind of reading that transports us to new worlds.
And that’s too bad. Because reading can be so rewarding, with plenty of science-backed reasons why. Here’s a look at a few of them.
Novels help develop empathy
Part of the pleasure of immersing ourselves in a novel is it allows us to step out of our own worlds and into characters’ lives completely different from our own. By understanding the mindset of fictional characters, research shows we learn about empathy, making us better able to understand the experiences and emotions of others in real life.
Toronto-based psychologists Raymond Mar and Keith Oatley have conducted several studies exploring this empathy-building power of fiction. In one, they asked volunteers to look at photographs and choose the emotion expressed in the subject’s eyes.
They found that regular fiction readers tended to score much higher in these tests than people who didn’t read many novels. Fiction readers also scored better on tests in which they watched video clips of people in social interactions and had to guess what was going on -- a skill that comes in handy when getting lost in a fictional story.
Books can alter your brain function
A great novel not only helps us relate to others, the act of reading also seems to reconfigure our brains, at least for a time.
A small study a couple of years ago had volunteers read every night from Robert Harris’ title “Pompeii,” a novel chosen because it’s an engaging thriller. The volunteers had their brains scanned with functional MRI before starting the novel, and again after they finished.
The scans showed heightened activity in the areas of the brain associated with language. There was also more activity in an area associated with physical sensations. The neurons of this part of the brain are those that are activated when we do such things as think about running without actually running.
The researchers say their findings suggest that reading a novel can almost transport you into the body of the protagonist. And the fact that brain changes were still there five days after the books were finished suggests that novels can have a lasting effect on the biology of your brain.
You’ll sleep better after a book
If you’re hoping to get a good night’s sleep, it’s a whole lot better to bring a book to bed than a tablet.
Lots of recent research has found that the blue glow from electronic gadgets can mess with our sleep.
One study late last year had participants read on an iPad for several hours before bedtime, while another group read books.
When it was time to turn out the lights, the iPad surfers took longer to fall asleep and spent less time in restorative REM, or rapid-eye movement, sleep.
Interestingly, the tablet users also reported feeling less alert the next morning, even after getting a full eight hours of sleep.
The researchers suspect the light from tablets suppresses our melatonin, which controls our circadian clocks, making it harder to fall asleep. They also suspect that e-readers weren’t any better, so yet another reason to go to bed with a real, paper-bound book.
Reading helps boost children’s IQ
Helping a child become a good reader early in life could help them ace intelligence tests later in life.
A study last year from researchers in the U.K. looked at the reading ability of several sets of twins. Twins were chosen because they share the same genetics and the same home environment, which allowed researchers to pinpoint differences in the things the twins didn’t share, such as teachers or classroom time.
They found that the twin who performed better on reading tests than their sibling at age 7 tended to still have better reading ability than their sibling at age 16. What’s more, the better readers also scored higher at age 16 on reasoning tests, tests that measured their vocabulary and general knowledge tests.
The researchers suspect that reading improves children’s ability to concentrate and helps train them to use abstract thinking, as they have to imagine people, places, and things while they read -- all of which could help boost their intelligence scores.
Stories strengthen parent-child relationships
Reading aloud every day can help enhance the brain development of babies, toddlers and preschoolers, which is not only great for their growing brains, it can lead to better parental bonding, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics.
In a statement that the group released last year, they said that reading regularly with young children “stimulates optimal patterns of brain development and strengthens parent-child relationships at a critical time in child development.”
They added that it “can enrich parent-child interactions and relationships, which enhances their children’s social-emotional development” while helping build “language, literacy, and social-emotional skills that last a lifetime.”