The Benefits of Reading
For large numbers of people, reading is a form of entertainment. A chance to escape from their normal lives and be transported to a different time or place. For a short time, they also get an opportunity to inhabit other lives that could be more exciting than their own.
Other people read to improve their knowledge. Obviously students and school pupils fall into this camp. But they are not the only readers who delve into a book so they can feel better informed about a particular subject. Biographies, memoirs, travelogues all bring opportunities for discovery.
Do the benefits of reading go beyond entertainment and knowledge?
The answer from American novelist and activist, James Baldwin is an unequivocal yes.
It was reading that helped him leap over the barriers he experienced when growing up as a black child in a white neighbourhood. And then during his early adult years when he frequently encountered discrimination, being turned away from restaurants, bars and other establishments because he was African American.
In an interview for LIFE Magazine in 1963, he described how, as a child, he read everything he could get his hands on from the public library
… murder mysteries, The Good Earth, everything. By the time I was thirteen I had read myself out of Harlem. What I had to do then was bring the two things together: the possibilities the books suggested and the impossibilities of the life around me.
Reading, said Baldwin, taught him that the things that tormented him the most were the same things experienced by people in the novels.
You read something which you thought only happened to you, and you discover that it happened 100 years ago to Dostoyevsky. This is a very great liberation for the suffering, struggling person, who always thinks that he is alone.
What Happens When We Read?
Recent decades have seen a wealth of scientific studies designed to address that very question.
Some studies looked at the benefits of reading on stress levels others on mental ability and emotional capacity. What these scientists discovered make a compelling argument about the transformational nature of books.
Reading Enlarges Your Brain
Let’s take the example of a study by two scientists at Pittsburgy-Carnegie Mellon University.
Instead of looking at the effects of reading on the body’s physiological, psychological and emotional mechanisms, they turned their attention to the brain.
Would reading have any effects on the neurological system, they wondered.
Their study of children aged eight to ten discovered that a programme to help children improve their reading skills caused a re-wiring of their brains.
The quality of white matter in the children’s brains — the tissue that carries signals between areas of grey matter where information is processed — improved substantially during the programme..
Although the study was relatively small (just 72 subjects), the researchers believed it could be a break-through in treating developmental disorders, including autism.
Reading Makes You Smarter
If our brains can change as a result of reading, what does that mean for intelligence levels?
It turns out that reading and intelligence have a symbiotic relationship.
“Crystallised intelligence” – the mishmash of knowledge that fills our brains – is improved with reading. As is “fluid intelligence” which is the ability to solve problems, understand things and detect meaningful patterns.
Some academics have used these connections to explain a 20 point increase credited in IQ scores among students. It’s the result, they claim of an increased emphasis on critical reading and writing skills in UK schools.
The lesson? If you want to have a chance of winning Mastermind or to excel in a survival exercise, you’d better get those books out now.
Reading Creates Empathy
But wait a moment. Being able to regurgitate facts and figures or to see connections between random thoughts might seem impressive.
But we’re missing a vital factor. One that makes an even more compelling reason for us to read and read and read.
For there’s third type of intelligence that is even more profoundly impacted by reading it appears. It’s called “emotional intelligence”.
We’re talking here about the ability to accurately read and understand our own and others’ feelings. And how to respond appropriately.
How do we know this?
In a 2013 Harvard study, a group of 1000 volunteers were put through an experiment designed to test other people’s mental states – what scientists call Theory of Mind.
One group was assigned literary fiction such as Corrie by Alice Munro and The Tiger’s Wife by Téa Obreht. Another read popular fiction such as Space Jockey by Robert Heinlein. A third group got nonfiction such as “How the Potato Changed the World” by Charles Mann. A control group had nothing to read.
Across five experiments, people in the literary fiction group performed better on tasks like predicting how characters would act. They had a stronger ability to detect and understand other people’s emotions – a crucial skill in navigating complex social relationships.
One of the study leaders said the results showed that social empathy was enhanced by reading literary fiction.
If we engage with characters who are nuanced, unpredictable, and difficult to understand, then I think we’re more likely to approach people in the real world with an interest and humility necessary for dealing with complex individuals,”David Kidd, postdoctoral fellow at Harvard Graduate School of Education
Reading other kinds of fiction – like graphic novels, light romances, chick lit – didn’t have anywhere near the same kind of benefit, the study leaders maintain.
Why the difference? Literary fiction (or what they called ‘writerly fiction’ contains more gaps in detail. The reader therefore has to work harder to find their way through the blanks, drawing more upon their ability to connect and to imagine. So instead of being told what a character is thinking, readers of literary fiction have to interpret it for themselves based on how they are shown of the character’s actions.
Reading Improves Mental Well-Being
The ability to understand other people’s emotions is now being viewed as a key element in the power of reading to affect mental well-being.
In part this is due to the benefit of reading on stress levels, as discovered in a 2009 study at the University of Sussex,
The researchers took a bunch of volunteers and put them through a series of activities designed to increase their heart rate and stress levels. Then they were tested with a variety of traditional methods of relaxation.
The activity that turned out to have the biggest effect, was reading.
Reading a novel for just six minutes lowered the volunteers’ stress levels by 68 percent. Other anti-stress strategies did work, just not to the same extent.
Going for a walk for example led to a 42 percent reduction; drinking a cup of tea or coffee saw a 54 percent improvement. Listening to music fared better, resulting in a 61 percent reduction in stress.
The authors reasoned that it’s the ability to be fully immersed and distracted that makes reading the perfect way to relieve stress.
This finding has had profound implications for the treatment of mental disorders. Doctors are now increasingly prescribing books to patients with depression or emotional disturbance.
‘Bibliotherapy’ as it’s been termed, isn’t new – it was apparently coined in 1916 by a clergyman named Samuel Crothers. But the National Health Service in the UK is taking a much closer interest into the benefits of literary prescriptions.
Since 2013 they’ve been working with The Reading Agency on a programme called Reading Well which offers a books-on-prescription scheme and a recommended list of mood-enhancing fiction that can be sourced from public libraries. The results so far are impressive.
These are the theories. Is this what happens in real life?
I’ve certainly had times when I’ve turned to books to help take my mind off a stressful situation. But I’ve been struggling to think of situations in which I’ve found empathy by reading a book. Or made a connection between my own situation and what I find in a work of fiction. Maybe the connection has happened but I wasn’t aware of it at the time. Or maybe the time has not yet come.
What do you think about all these studies? Do you know of people who who have found comfort in books? Do share your insights if you feel comfortable about doing so.