How books change us for the better
Why read a book when you could marathon The Mindy Project and conduct a “how savouring eight squares of dark chocolate reduces stress” case study? Research credits reading with a lot: everything from delaying memory loss to blunting chronic pain. Cracking a book could also improve our relationships and rewire our brains.
What was your last brush with a book? A summer fling with a best-seller? A dutiful march through a classic? Or a pre-exam skim of a textbook? Don’t wait: dive into another book. Research credits reading with making us better people: more empathetic, less stressed, and even healthier.
Reading shows promise in delaying the onset of dementia—a condition that’s expected to affect 1.4 million Canadians by 2031. In a recent study, older subjects reported how often they had engaged in mentally stimulating activities, such as reading, throughout their lives. They took memory and thinking tests annually. Researchers examined the brains of nearly 300 subjects after about six years. Those who had more frequently practised mentally engaging activities had a slower rate of cognitive decline.
Why we read may be just as important as the act of reading itself. A 2015 survey found that people who regularly read for pleasure report fewer feelings of stress than nonreaders. They find the relaxing effect greater than if they watch television, scroll through social media, or read other, less pleasurable material.
Nonreaders were also 28 percent more likely to report feelings of depression than bookworms.
Do books simply offer us an escape from what weighs us down? That’s part of it. But reading doesn’t necessarily lead us away from our problems—and if it does, often we can turn around and see them more clearly. We see ourselves, as well as our greatest troubles, mirrored in books. This helps us gain perspective. Characters learn that tough times are normal; so do many readers.
An experimental reading group for people suffering from chronic pain has shown that reading may be a salve for more than emotional pain. Part of the benefit came from the social aspects of the group—the discussion, camaraderie, and sense of occasion decreased members’ feelings of isolation and depression. But the act of reading helped with pain management: the more challenging the texts, the more absorbed the members became, and the less aware they were of their pain.
Reading literary fiction—stories that explore the human condition—helps us “read” people in real life. Researchers say reading plot-driven fiction, such as thrillers, and nonfiction, such as newspapers, doesn’t increase our understanding of others’ state of mind.
That doesn’t mean you’ve got to read a literary heavyweight such as War and Peace, especially if you find it impenetrable. You’re better off choosing a novel that carries you into its world. A 2013 study found that only when readers were transported into the story did they experience an increase in empathy.
Reading doesn’t just change our views or beliefs; it may change how our brains are wired. Hours or even days after reading, certain areas of the brain show greater connectivity.
The longest-lasting changes seem to affect a neural network that allows us to experience sensations not actually happening to us. (Yes, just reading about a man running a marathon can activate neurons that would fire if you yourself were heading into the final mile.) Whether it’s the act of reading or the content we’re reading that strengthens our brain networks remains to be seen—but it seems certain that books have the power to change us.
Burpees with a book? Not likely. But propping a book up while you’re on the elliptical? Doable. Choose something with reasonably large font, and try not to channel Notre Dame’s famous bell tower resident: shoulders back!
Advocates of the “slow reading” movement have started throwing reading parties. (Think of the slow food movement’s mantra of savouring what we consume, but for books.) Give it a try—especially if you’re the kind of person who loathes making small talk at parties. Just make sure there are snacks, unobtrusive music, and enough comfy chairs for your guests to curl up and read.
Read during downtime while you’re cooking—whenever foods are simmering, baking, or cooling. As soon as the timer is set, sit down with your book. The dishes can wait.
While all types of reading benefit us in different ways, some studies have highlighted the extra benefits of reading fiction. One study found that reading fiction was associated with strong social support, while nonfiction was associated with loneliness. Fiction may also improve the ability to process information and our creativity.
If you want to get immersed and retain information, go with the paperback. People who read a physical book are more easily transported into the story and are better at comprehending and recalling what they’ve read.
This may have something to do with how the heft of the book changes as we read. We start with just a sliver of pages in our left hand and a stack in our right, and that distribution slowly changes. Along the way we might dog-ear a page or notice the spine loosening. We accumulate tiny tactile memories to go along with what we’ve read, and this helps us remember the progression of the story.
If you love a bedtime story, reach for the traditional book. Using a light-emitting e-reader before bed can make it more difficult for us to fall asleep, may reduce REM sleep, and leave us in a fog the following morning—even if we get a full eight hours of sleep. The issue is the device; reading a book generally helps us sleep better.
But if loading an e-book onto your device means you’ll read more, it’s worth adding to your arsenal for other times of day. Try setting your device to airplane mode when you’re reading to help minimize distractions.