Five reasons why reading is good for you

Reading can sometimes feel like an indulgence – but it’s good for both your mental and physical health. From better sleep to improved intelligence, here are five great reasons to read

photo of a woman reading by a window to illustrate a post about why reading is good for youPhotograph via Oh Happy Day

I tend to think of reading as a treat – a reward when the boring stuff is out of the way. But recently I’ve been trying hard to make it a priority and I feel so much better for it. Which made me think about the benefits of settling down with a book and why reading should perhaps be pushed even further up the daily task list. So here are five reasons why reading is good for you – really good for you – in case you need any further excuses…

1. Reading exercises your brain, improving memory, focus and concentration
Do you remember those adverts for “brain-training” products (supposedly featuring old people who were clearly about 47)? They may have been a bit of a fad but it is true that you should challenge your brain and use it in as many different ways as possible, to keep your mind sharp and ward off memory loss. And because reading is more neurobiologically demanding than processing images or speech, it’s extremely effective at doing just that. Reading works many different parts of the brain (more than watching TV does, for instance) and, according to Ken Pugh, a director of research at Yale, people who read regularly have more complex brains than those who don’t. Reading also helps to improve our powers of concentration; these days, it’s one of the few activities in which we become totally absorbed, and so enhances our ability to focus on the task at hand.

2. It’s relaxing and helps you sleep
Again, it’s the total absorption we experience when we read that makes it such a relaxing pastime. In fact, researchers at the University of Sussex found that reading for just six minutes can help reduce stress levels by up to 68 per cent – it scored more highly than activities such as walking or listening to music. Getting lost in someone else’s world allows you to forget your own problems for a while and, possibly, get them into perspective at the same time. And, if you’re anything like me, reading will have such a calming effect that you’ll probably be asleep before the end of the chapter…

3. It makes you terribly clever
In soooo many ways. It increases your knowledge for a start – fiction can give you insight into a time or place you knew little about before, whereas non-fiction books, magazines and, ahem, blogs, will generally make you a very interesting and well informed person. Reading also improves your vocabulary, which helps you speak, write and communicate more effectively. In fact we often describe articulate, knowledgeable people as well read – which they invariably are.

4. Reading fiction makes you a nicer person
Why do people sabotage their own happiness or make bad situations worse? And what is a person really going through when they experience trauma or tragedy? Sometimes even those closest to you can struggle to explain their motives or feelings – but literature has the power to delve deep into a character’s psyche and explain why people do what they do. You’re able to imagine what it would be like to be in their shoes and you suspend your judgment and ask yourself what you might have done in their place. And that helps you to understand and have more empathy for other (real) people. Science even backs this up – researchers at Carnegie Mellon University found that when a reader was absorbed in a book, they used the same regions of their brains to perceive what was happening as they would in real life – in other words, our brain simulates experiences when we read. And, according to scientists at Emory University in Atlanta, the empathy we feel when reading wires our brains to feel a similar sensitivity towards real people because, on a neurological level, we think we are part of the story.

5. It promotes deep thinking
Reading to children is important partly because hearing stories helps them link cause and effect – and while their young brains have so much plasticity that concept is easily absorbed. But the power of literature to expand our thinking continues for as long as we keep on reading. So much literary fiction takes us way out of our comfort zone, forcing us to grapple with situations that we rarely have to face head on in real life. The big issues – identity, purpose, meaning, justice, equality – as well as intense and moving emotion can all be experienced through books. And our way of seeing the world and our place within it can be turned upside down if we open our minds to what a book is trying to tell us. Searching for a novel’s meaning involves putting together the clues scattered along the way – the imagery, the symbolism, emotion, motivation and your own reactions. Your mind needs, somehow, to pull all these elements together to access the heart of the book and that is quite the mental workout. Not only that, but a work of literature that plays around with form and structure, that really makes us work to understand it, can elevate us to new levels of expression and creativity of our own.

In short, a book can be a portal that helps us access not just other people’s worlds, but the depths of our own inner world – it can show you what your own mind can do, how much it can imagine, understand and process, and can change the way you see the world and the people within it. I think I know what I’ll be doing for the rest of the day…

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