“What an astonishing thing a book is. It’s a flat object made from a tree with flexible parts on which are imprinted lots of funny dark squiggles. But one glance at it and you’re inside the mind of another person, maybe somebody dead for thousands of years. Across the millennia, an author is speaking clearly and silently inside your head, directly to you. Writing is perhaps the greatest of human inventions, binding together people who never knew each other, citizens of distant epochs. Books break the shackles of time. A book is proof that humans are capable of working magic.”
[Carl Sagan in Cosmos, Part 11: The Persistence of Memory (1980)]
When was the last time you chose to read a book?
As the digital age continues to change the way we relate with the world and with each other, people are able to dive into stories at the press of a button. We can passively sit back and experience an ultra high definition production featuring our celebrity crushes and favorite actors as they interact in perfectly curated spaces. So why would anyone choose a book over a film or a series?
If you are an average reader, part of the answers to this question will come as no surprise. If reading a book is not how you envision spending your time, the answers might help you reconsider.
It’s no mystery that reading is cognitively stimulating.
It requires the use of many areas of the brain working simultaneously to receive, process, visualize, interpret, react and store information. Reading is good exercise for your brain.
Numerous research studies suggest that voluntary reading has beneficial impacts on the brain and your mental health. Findings include prolonged life-spans, improvements in memory and processing, increased resilience to dementia and Alzheimer’s disease and reduced symptoms of depression.
In addition, Recent research suggests that reading fiction can improve your ability to empathize with others and increase your compassion. In other words, immersing yourself in long stories improves your theory of mind. Theory of mind is the ability to attribute mental states—beliefs, intents, desires, pretending, knowledge, etc.—to oneself and others and to understand that others have beliefs, desires, and intentions that are different from one’s own.
In his 2013 study, Gregory Berns et al., measured the short terms and long term effects that reading fiction has on brain connectivity. During the experiment, the participants were assigned the same random novel
“The neural changes that we found associated with physical sensation and movement systems suggest that reading a novel can transport you into the body of the protagonist,” Berns says. “We already knew that good stories can put you in someone else’s shoes in a figurative sense. Now we’re seeing that something may also be happening biologically.”
The author further states that the neural changes were not just immediate reaction, since they persisted the morning after the readings, and for the five days after the participants completed the novel.
“It remains an open question how long these neural changes might last, but the fact that we are detecting them over a few days for a randomly assigned novel suggests that your favorite novels could certainly have a bigger and longer-lasting effect on the biology of your brain.”
The ability to empathize with someone increases your ability to navigate social situations and interrelational conflict, which in turn could significantly reduce your stress levels and your chances of attaining your goals.
Perhaps the next time you are craving a story other than your own, close your laptop and open up a book.
Berns GS, Blaine K, Prietula MJ, Pye BE: Short and long term effects of a novel on connectivity in the brain. Brain Connectivity 3:590-600, 2013.
Avni Bavishi, Martin D. Slade, Becca R. Levy, A chapter a day: Association of book reading with longevity, Social Science & Medicine, Volume 164, 2016, Pages 44-48,
Pugh, K., Shaywitz, B., Constable, T., Shaywitz, S., Skudlarski, P., Fulbright, R., Bronen, R., Shankweiler, D., Katz, L., Fletcher, J., & Gore, J. (1996). Cerebral organization of component processes in reading. Brain, ,119, 1221-1238