A Good Read - How books change us for the better

Why read a book when you could marathon The Mindy Project and conduct a “how savouring eight squares of dark chocolate reduces stress” case study? Research credits reading with a lot: everything from delaying memory loss to blunting chronic pain. Cracking a book could also improve our relationships and rewire our brains.

"There is no friend as loyal as books".

1. Preserve cognitive function

Reading shows promise in delaying the onset of dementia—a condition that’s expected to affect 1.4 million Canadians by 2031. In a recent study, older subjects reported how often they had engaged in mentally stimulating activities, such as reading, throughout their lives. They took memory and thinking tests annually. Researchers examined the brains of nearly 300 subjects after about six years. Those who had more frequently practised mentally engaging activities had a slower rate of cognitive decline.

2. Soothe stress and depression

Why we read may be just as important as the act of reading itself. A 2015 survey found that people who regularly read for pleasure report fewer feelings of stress than non-readers. They find the relaxing effect greater than if they watch television, scroll through social media, or read other, less pleasurable material. Non readers were also 28 percent more likely to report feelings of depression than bookworms. Do books simply offer us an escape from what weighs us down? That’s part of it. But reading doesn’t necessarily lead us away from our problems—and if it does, often we can turn around and see them more clearly. We see ourselves, as well as our greatest troubles, mirrored in books. This helps us gain perspective. Characters learn that tough times are normal; so do many readers.

3. Ease our perception of pain

An experimental reading group for people suffering from chronic pain has shown that reading may be a salve for more than emotional pain. Part of the benefit came from the social aspects of the group—the discussion, camaraderie, and sense of occasion decreased members’ feelings of isolation and depression. But the act of reading helped with pain management: the more challenging the texts, the more absorbed the members became, and the less aware they were of their pain.

4. Help our relationships

Reading literary fiction—stories that explore the human condition—helps us “read” people in real life. Researchers say reading plot-driven fiction, such as thrillers, and nonfiction, such as newspapers, doesn’t increase our understanding of others’ state of mind. That doesn’t mean you’ve got to read a literary heavyweight such as War and Peace, especially if you find it impenetrable. You’re better off choosing a novel that carries you into its world. A 2013 study found that only when readers were transported into the story did they experience an increase in empathy.

5. Change our minds

Reading doesn’t just change our views or beliefs; it may change how our brains are wired. Hours or even days after reading, certain areas of the brain show greater connectivity. The longest-lasting changes seem to affect a neural network that allows us to experience sensations not actually happening to us. (Yes, just reading about a man running a marathon can activate neurons that would fire if you yourself were heading into the final mile.) Whether it’s the act of reading or the content we’re reading that strengthens our brain networks remains to be seen—but it seems certain that books have the power to change us.

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