Book smart; the unexpected health benefits of being an avid reader

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Anna Brech
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Unlike cheese boards or sunbathing, reading is one of the few life pleasures that comes with actual health benefits.

Neurological researchers have spent years studying the impact of books on the brain. They've identified a compelling link between the act of chomping through a novel and enhanced cognitive ability. Reading, it transpires, has a profound effect on mental agility, the memory and our aptitude for imagination and compassion. 

It can also help to alleviate stress and aid sleep. 

Of course, these effects may vary according to whether you're reading on a Kindle or from an actual book. Studies are still continuing in this area, but we discuss some emerging trends below.

In the meantime, book-lovers, rest assured that the next time you lose two days of your life in the pages of Gone Girl, or some other addictive best-seller, you could also be providing yourself with the following remedies: 

It reduces stress

Reading for just six minutes can be enough to reduce stress levels by up to 68%, according to a 2009 study from the University of Sussex

Researchers found that reading silently to oneself works to slow down the heart rate and ease tension in the muscles. And it does this more effectively than other traditionally "relaxing" activities such as listening to music or having a cup of tea.

"By losing yourself in a thoroughly engrossing book you can escape from the worries and stresses of the everyday world and spend a while exploring the domain of the author's imagination," says cognitive neuropsychologist Dr David Lewis, leading the survey. 

"This is more than merely a distraction but an active engaging of the imagination as the words on the printed page stimulate your creativity and cause you to enter what is essentially an altered state of consciousness."

It refines brain function

A study published in a 2014 of the journal Brain Connectivity found that reading fiction improves the reader's ability to put themselves in another person’s shoes and flex the imagination. And this, in turn, improves theory of mind.

Scientists in the study found that reading novels caused changes in the left temporal cortex, an area of the brain associated with language comprehension and a phenomenon known as "embodied cognition". This function allows neurons to trick the mind into thinking it's doing something that it is not.

The researchers concluded from this that "the act of reading puts the reader in the body of the protagonist". It's likely that this expands a person's emotional intelligence and ability to be compassionate. 

 "At a minimum, we can say that reading stories - especially those with strong narrative arcs - reconfigures brain networks for at least a few days. It shows how stories can stay with us. This may have profound implications for children and the role of reading in shaping their brains," says neuroscientist Professor Gregory S. Berns, lead author of the study. 

It helps your memory

In her landmark paper "What Reading Does For The Mind", Berkeley-based development psychologist Dr. Anne Cunningham looks at the cognitive consequences of being an avid reader.

She concludes that reading is a learned "coding" process and once you reach a certain level of reading ability, its benefits become reciprocal. Reading helps your brain to retain information over time, which in turn means you read better, which goes full circle to make you sharper and smarter.

 "Reading is a very rich and complex and cognitive act," she says. 

Connected to this is the impact of reading on memory.

Every time you read, you create a new memory. So the process of reading will flex your memory reflexes over time. 

"Parts of the brain that have evolved for other functions - such as vision, language, and associative learning - connect in a specific neural circuit for reading, which is very challenging," says Ken Pugh, PhD, director of research of Haskins Laboratories, the Yale-based science of language unit.

"Typically, when you read, you have more time to think. Reading gives you a unique pause button for comprehension and insight."

It enhances mental agility in old age

Keeping mentally active by reading books or writing letters helps protect the brain in old age, according to research published in a 2013 edition of the journal Neurology.

The study from the Rush University Medical Center in Chicago measured memory and thinking in over 200 participants aged over 55, every year for about six years until their deaths.

The same volunteers answered a questionnaire about whether they read books, wrote letters and took part in other activities linked to mental stimulation during childhood, adolescence, middle age, and in later life.

After death, their brains were examined for evidence of the physical signs of dementia, such as brain lesions and plaques.

The researchers found that when other variables such as drinking alcohol were factored out, those with a record of keeping the brain busy had a rate of cognitive decline estimated at 15% slower than those who did not.

"Based on this, we shouldn't underestimate the effects of everyday activities, such as reading and writing, on our children, ourselves and our parents or grandparents," says study author Robert. S. Wilson, Ph.D.

The findings may also explain why brain-stretching activities such as reading have been linked to the delay of Alzheimer's disease in old age. 

Health benefits; the differences between actual books and eBooks

Data is still emerging on this relatively new topic, but research so far seems to indicate that the health benefits of reading can be negated in digital books.

For example, reading a book has long been associated with one of the routines that leads to better quality sleep. However, a study out last year found that reading from a tablet or iPad before bedtime may actually disrupt sleep quality

Researchers at  the Brigham & Women's Hospital in Boston followed every nightly twitch, turn and snore of 12 volunteers over a two-week period.  They found that those who read from a screen had a harder time falling asleep, spent less time in the crucial "REM" (Rapid Eye Movement) phase of sleep, and were less alert the next day.

They concluded that back-lit devices are especially powerful when it comes to suppressing the release of melatonin, the hormone that brings on sleep.

Reading from such a device "is exactly what you don’t want to do at bedtime," says Charles Czeisler, the study’s senior author. "Many people read things to help them fall asleep. They probably don’t realize that this technology is actually making them less likely to feel sleepy."

Another study from Norway's Stavanger University last year found that readers absorb less information on Kindles than on paper. In the survey, 50 readers were given the same short story to read. Half read the 28-page story on a Kindle, and half in a paperback, with readers then tested on aspects of the story including objects, characters and settings.

Researchers found that those who used a Kindle "performed significantly worse on the plot reconstruction measure, i.e., when they were asked to place 14 events in the correct order."

"When you read on paper you can sense with your fingers a pile of pages on the left growing, and shrinking on the right," says lead researcher Anne Mangen. "You have the tactile sense of progress, in addition to the visual ... [The differences for Kindle readers] might have something to do with the fact that the fixity of a text on paper, and this very gradual unfolding of paper as you progress through a story, is some kind of sensory offload, supporting the visual sense of progress when you're reading." 

It's early days but this could suggest that the impact of reading on enhancing memory is less potent in eBooks, compared to actual books. 

Words: Anna Brech, Photos: ThinkStock


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Anna Brech

Anna Brech is a freelance journalist and former editor for Her six-year stint on the site saw her develop a vociferous appetite for live Analytics, feminist opinion and good-quality gin in roughly equal measure. She enjoys writing across all areas of women’s lifestyle content but has a soft spot for books and escapist travel content.