Most people start learning to read at a young age. This imperative life skill is needed in all areas of life: getting an education, excelling at your workplace, driving around the city, doing your food shop, the list goes on. Reading occurs as a result of intricate processing in the brain. It does more than help you get through your day. There are numerous scientific benefits of reading and recent evidence highlights the link between reading and mental health.
What happens in your brain as you read?
As your eyes scan across the screen taking in these words, your brain is undergoing complex processes at lightning speed to make this a seamless read. Reading involves most areas of your brain  starting with the recognition of letters and words in front of you. This leads to processing the sounds of these letters and words to enhance their understanding. Your brain takes the combination of words to form meaning at a sentence level. The area for speech production is involved to comprehend how these words are pronounced as you read them. Everything happens within milliseconds. Children who just started learning to read find it challenging, which becomes easy as an adult. This brain network activates and strengthens the more you read, which brings out the brain benefits of reading:
1. Does reading protect against cognitive decline?
About 2000 older adults were studied for 14 years. Those who read at least once a week were protected against cognitive decline 6 years on . Regardless of their level of education, those who read more were better protected. Your books can become your best friends in protecting your brain in old age. In a study of 300 older adults, those who were avid readers throughout their life had 30% less cognitive decline compared to those who rarely read . A simple concept to remember is that keeping your brain active regularly will reinforce those brain networks, which will remain strong in old age. Reading is a great activity due to involvement of multiple brain areas and networks. There are ways you can motivate yourself to read and develop a reading habit. Read more about it here.
2. Does reading improve memory?
When you learn to read initially, there is a great demand on your short-term memory  which holds information temporarily while your brain processes information simultaneously. This is your working memory. Reading for just 20 minutes a day adds up to over 1.8 million words a year . As you continue reading over the years, your working memory grows stronger. This holds true even in old age where some memory decline is expected. Reading is protective against this. Older adults over the age of 60 were enrolled in an 8-week program of reading for pleasure. This group read for 90 minutes, five days a week and saw an improvement in episodic (memory of events) and working memory . Their memory scores were even better than those who played puzzles instead of reading.
3. Does reading reduce stress?
How do you cope with everyday stresses? Taking a hot bath? Eating cake? You might want to consider adding reading for pleasure in that list. Reading was found to be as relaxing as doing yoga. Medical students who read for 30 mins had an almost 20% decrease in their stress score . This was equally as beneficial in reducing stress as those who did yoga instead. A 2021 survey carried out by the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy found that 43% of people reported reading helped reduce their stress levels during the COVID lockdown . The stress busting effects of reading could be due to increase in positive emotions like optimism, happiness and reduction in negative emotions, providing a therapeutic effect.
4. Does reading make you more empathetic?
Reading can help you become a better person. Reading activates the emotion area of your brain . This helps explain why reading certain stories can evoke strong emotions and make you “feel” for the characters. Those who read fiction were found to better understand perception of feelings of others . Reading is often said to spark your imagination. Science adds that being emotionally engrossed in a story can improve empathy levels , thus helping you become kinder.
5. Does reading build a stronger brain?
Reading can physically change your brain for the better. This begins in childhood when you start reading. When school students underwent 4 hours of reading, five days a week, there was a rapid increase in brain networks that connect different areas of the brain . Those who were illiterate had less of these brain networks. The benefit of reading is further highlighted in a study of children with reading difficulties. After an intensive 8-weeks reading session, the brain networks grew stronger in 4 different areas of the brain, including the area of memory and learning .
This World Book Day (2nd March), pick up your favourite book and read your way to a better brain.
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