I guess you could say I lived out a Matilda-ish childhood, minus the dickhead parents. Having essentially taught myself how to read from before I could even crawl, books always proved so, so much more compelling to me than the worms my friends enjoyed devouring aged 5, or the boys they liked to gossip over aged twelve till forever.
But in an age where it’s all Netflix and chill, less and less people are picking up books. Indeed, according to the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study, only 26% of pupils in England actually ‘like reading’, while a 2014 study found that ¼ of Americans hadn’t read a single book the previous year.
Awful news not just because they’re going to be missing out on some serious gems aka the entire Jacqueline Wilson back-catalogue, Goosebumps, The Famous Five and etc - okay sorry let me get off memory lane – but seriously there are so many good books out there. And no you can’t just watch the movie. It’s not the same thing.
Other than sheer missing out, there are, it turns out, a whole bunch of scientific reasons why we should all be reading. Not least because new research suggests that it can improve relationships and reduce symptoms of depression.
Following the Book Awards this week, we’ve dug up some scientific reasons why reading books is good for you…
1. It Increases Your Emotional Intelligence
There’s loads of research that suggests that people who read fiction are more empathetic. A 2014 study found that reading fiction improves the readers’ ability to flex the imagination and ‘puts the reader in the body of the protagonist.’
Yup, turns out that when you read about something, your brain reacts as if you’re actually living it. A 2011 study found that the reader’s brain creates intense, graphic mental simulations of the sights, sounds, movements and tastes they encounter in the narrative. This not only allows us to better imagine ourselves in other people’s shoes, but also allows us to experience a wider range of emotions and experiences than we would otherwise.
It’s also suggested that reading makes us more kick ass, overall, due to the fact that most fiction stories see a protagonist overcome obstacles to become a hero. As we’re living the story along with the character, this reportedly then gives us the courage to become our own heroes, regardless of whether that’s simply getting started on that project you’ve been putting off for like, evs.
Studies have found a decrease in empathy in the younger generation, suggested to be because less and less are reading, and more are spending all of their time on social media, playing games or on the Internet, all of which provide instant gratification but no room for empathy.
2. It Improves Your Relationships
This kind of goes hand in hand with the last point, but if you are more empathetic you’re likely to also have better relationships with those around you.
As Dr, Oatley, an emeritus professor of cognitive psychology at the University of Toronto, said: ‘Fiction is a particularly useful simulation because negotiating the social world effectively is extremely tricky, requiring us to weigh up myriad interacting instances of cause and effect. Just as computer simulations can help us get to grips with complex problems such as flying a plane or forecasting the weather, so novels, stories and dramas can help us understand the complexities of social life.’
3. It Promotes A Greater Understanding Of Other Cultures
Reading has also been found to, by the same principles as above, increase our understanding of other cultures.
‘Some of the most consistent outcomes [of the study] were the ability to learn about the self and others, learning about diverse human populations and other cultures and learning about other periods of history,’ concluded The Reading Agency. ‘Respondents who read more frequently were also reported to have an enhanced ability to understand other people’s class, ethnicity, culture and political perspectives.’
Researchers used Harry Potter novels to see if reading could be used as a tool for improving attitudes towards stigmatized groups. After three experiments in which students read passages about discrimination from the books, the students showed changed attitudes about everything from immigrants to gay students, with researchers crediting the books for improving readers’ ability to assume the perspective of marginalized groups.
4. It Reduces Symptoms Of Depression
A recent survey of readers in the UK found that 76% said reading improves their life and helps to make them feel good. The study also found that those who read regularly are on average more satisfied with life, happier, and more likely to feel that the things they do in life are worthwhile.
This could well be because life is complicated as hell and often things don’t work out quite the way we want them to. Reading can help us become more accepting of this reality by making us explore ideas of change, complex emotions and the unknown without making us seize up in panic.
5. It Lowers Risk Of Dementia
The Reading Agency concluded that reading – fiction, above newspapers and magazines - is associated with a lower risk of dementia.
Research found that those who participate in mentally stimulating activities like reading had a slower rate of decline in memory compared to those who didn’t, and that mental activity accounts for nearly 15% of the difference in decline.
Those who read more are also found to show less characteristics of Alzheimer’s disease, according to a 2001 study.
6. It Promotes Greater Memory And Mental Abilities
Psychologists from Washington University found that every time you read something you build a mental picture in your head of what you have read. This created image weaves into your own experiences and creates a new neural pathway; effectively increasing your brainpower. This in turn strengthens our mental capacities, making us smarter and more capable of remembering things.
7. It Reduces Anxiety And Stress
Reading has been shown to put our brains into a pleasurable trance-like state, similar to meditation. Research has found that reading brings the same health benefits of deep relaxation and inner calm and that regular readers sleep better, have lower stress levels, higher self-esteem, and lower rates of depression than non-readers.
A 2009 study from researchers at University of Sussex showed that six minutes of reading reduces stress by 68% and is more relaxing than either music or a cup of tea. This, suggests psychologist and study author Dr. David Lewis, is because a book is ‘more than merely a distraction, but an active engaging of the imagination,’ and one that ‘causes you to enter an altered state of consciousness.’
Basically, pick up a book, pronto.
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This article originally appeared on The Debrief.