You’ve no doubt heard this before, but it bears repeating — one of the best things you can do for your brain is read. Cereal boxes will do in a pinch, but mostly, it’s about books. This is especially important the older a person gets. I’ve been reading (haha) a lot about this topic and not just because I’m getting older (another haha). The truth is, reading is like a multi-faceted workout for our brains — weight training, cardio, yoga, and Pilates all in one. From mental stimulation to stronger thinking skills to memory improvement, the benefits for our brains are numerous.
One of the most interesting recent findings is that the storytelling aspect of a novel engages a broad range of brain regions. Neuroscientists have discovered that reading a novel can improve brain function by enhancing connectivity and increasing blood flow to the area of the brain associated with language. Even better — this area stays heightened for several days after reading.
When you read a book, especially a novel, your brain has to remember a variety of characters, their backgrounds and individual traits and nuances, as well as the arcs and subplots in the story. Every new memory forges new pathways in the brain and strengthens existing ones, which assists in short-term memory.
Researchers at the Yale School of Public Health found that people who read just 30 minutes a day lived on average two years longer than those who didn’t read at all. Reading, as well as a large vocabulary, may give us something called ‘cognitive reserve’ — the brain’s ability to repair damage caused by stroke, dementia, or decay. Studies also have shown that reading can slow the process of dementia, and possibly even prevent it.
A recent Psychology Today article cited a study in which researchers measured changes in brain connectivity before and after reading a novel. MRI scans revealed heightened connectivity after reading, specifically in the areas of the brain associated with language, comprehension, sensations, and movement. The movement finding was surprising, but the researchers thought that perhaps, the act of reading actually “puts” the reader in the body of the protagonist.
Reading has been shown to improve focus and concentration as well. Most of us check email, reply to a text, post something on social media, and work on a task all in the span of a few minutes. This type of multi-tasking behavior can raise stress levels, lessen focus, and cause brain overload, but reading does just the opposite. Reading allows our brains to concentrate on the words without other sensory input. And reading does something practically no other medium can do — in the absence of a spelled-out conclusion to a story, our brains automatically imagine and create one.
While novels have great benefits for our brains, so obviously do nonfiction books — filled with facts and knowledge — and poetry. A recent study on the effects of poetry on our brains found that it elicits strong emotional and physical responses in readers such as facial expressions and goosebumps. These responses occurred most frequently at the end of a stanza or at the end of the poem.
What more proof do you need? Open up a book and get your brain in shape for now, and the future!