What’s the Science Behind Reading?

Many of us bookworms are fascinated by cold, hard facts, so it’s time we had a post about the science of reading! There have been several studies on how reading affects the brain and our health, and you’ll be pleased to know that there are lots of benefits and no disadvantages.

According to Emily Hanford, senior education correspondent at APM Reports, our brains are designed for talking, not for reading, so we have to put in extra effort to learn to read. Most of us rely heavily on phonics to learn how to read, which is the process of sounding out the words, and then marrying the sound to the letters. It took a long time for the focus to shift to teaching reading through phonics, as the original process was through a ‘whole-word’ mentality. It was previously thought that we learned to read by recognizing words after reading them over and over again.

Our brains also map spelling patterns, to the extent that we recognize the word ‘horse’ quicker than an accompanying picture of a ‘horse.’ This orthographic mapping is also how we understand the difference between ‘pear’ and ‘pair.’

One of the fascinating things about how we read is the concept of ‘decoding’ words. Think about that next time you wish you were a spy! You’re decoding puzzles every time you pick up a book.

So if decoding puzzles wasn’t enough for you, let’s get into the benefits of reading on the mind.

Business Insider’s infographic states that reading reduces stress by up to 68%. It also shows that reading a print book before bed every night can aid sleep. Your brain will relax and begin to wind down for the night; then, if you keep this routine long enough, the brain starts treating your nightly reading time as a cue. So reading a book becomes your body’s cue to sleep, and you get a better night’s rest. No more tossing and turning! However, if you read on an electronic device, you will harm your sleep. Screens and devices help wake the brain up, which is not what you want at bedtime. It might be a useful technique to try in the mornings, though.

There are other mental benefits to reading, but almost all of them don’t work with ereaders. It seems our brains are big print fans. This may be because turning physical pages gives your brain more cues as to what you’re doing and how to process the activity. We also read slower in print than digital.

Reading has been proven to aid depression, whether the affected person reads in their head, or whether someone reads aloud. Sufferers report feeling more optimistic after reading or being read to. Where a low level of intervention is the best option for a mental health patient, things like self-help books have a double benefit – the patient benefits from the advice in the book, but they also benefit from the reading itself. Giving someone suffering from a mental health problem, the joy of reading could genuinely save a life, and many patients offered self-help books would not be readers otherwise.

The human brain functions similarly to a muscle in that the more active your brain is, the better. This is especially true in older people, who are at risk of mental decline, memory loss, and Alzheimer’s, but the effects of reading will carry through your whole life. Getting a reading habit as a young adult (or even younger) can decrease your chances of Alzheimer’s later. Regular brain activity, like reading, puzzles, or strategy games can reduce the mental decline by 32%.

The effects of reading books have even shown up on brain scans. Reading can create new synapses, as well as strengthen old ones. MRI scans show increased connectivity in the language center of the brain. This is not surprising, since we can all testify that we have a much wider vocabulary than our non-bookish friends! Children’s vocabulary expands by 50% more through reading than it does through television shows.

Another benefit of reading is increased empathy. If you read about someone anxious, you are more likely to relate to someone anxious. We are also more likely to do things we’ve read about characters doing. (Does that mean we’re more likely to volunteer as tribute because Katniss did?) Reading about someone going kayaking can make it more likely that you will try kayaking. It seems that reading increases your curiosity, perhaps.

Apart from boosting your elderly mental health, reading can have physical benefits, which become more and more important as you age. Reading can lower your blood pressure and heart rate, leading to a lower risk of stroke and heart disease. Books can also fine-tune your senses, due to the strong connotations of ‘garlic’ or ‘rain.’ Reading these words can raise vivid images and memories, like your favorite (or least favorite) smell. Reading has also been linked with living a longer life.

With all these fantastic benefits to your health, there’s a whole host of reasons why you need to read that book instead of whatever else you’re supposed to be doing. Reading is also good for the soul, and it is one of the most effective escapist methods when the world gets hard. It also gives you a massive jumping-off point for talking to new and different people. You also have a whole community to engage with when you feel lonely. If none of your friends have read that book yet, you can guarantee someone online has. Reading is a key to other people.

What are you reading at the moment? Can you feel it doing your brain some good? If you fancy some braaaaains, check out some excellent zombie books for adults. Or why not find out about the benefits of audiobooks for your heart and mind?