The pandemic has come with a lot of changes (to say the least!), and it has certainly altered what free time looks like as we all spend more time nestled in the comfort of our homes. In addition to the onslaught of bread baking and Netflix binging, pandemic pastimes have included revisiting hobbies new and old. If you’re like me, this may include finding more time to read. That new science article? Of course! But, also those books that have been gathering dust waiting for you to crack them open. Although in recent years reading has been kicked down my priority list, I found myself happily falling back into it during the pandemic — as good an option as any for avoiding doom scrolling. While reading certainly has not replaced my heightened baking and television adventures, there is no denying the allure of the escapism that comes with immersing yourself in a novel. Here is a breakdown of the scientific benefits of reading and why it can be so pleasurable. 

1. Reading enhances critical thinking and vocabulary skills

Sharpened reasoning and language skills as a result of reading are fairly well-known. In one study, MRI scans of students’ brains showed increased connectivity in the area associated with language receptivity, the left temporal cortex, after reading a novel. Reading during your teenage years can even improve your verbal IQ, a value that is usually assumed to stay constant throughout a person’s lifetime.

2. Reading improves empathy

Reading can also improve your EQ, or emotional intelligence. When people are emotionally invested in a story, reading fiction has been found to increase the empathy of the reader — and there may be something biological happening here, too. In a study at Emory University, MRI scans of students’ brains showed heightened connectivity in the primary sensory motor region of the brain up to five days after reading a thriller novel. While neurons in this region of the brain activate through movement and sensation, they are also known to activate through thinking about sensations. In other words, the action-packed journey of the novel’s protagonist creates heightened brain connectivity in the reader even five days after the book’s end. Additionally, a 2013 Science publication found that reading literary fiction results in higher scores on tests of Theory of Mind (ToM). ToM is the human capability of recognizing that other people also hold beliefs and desires and that these may be different from your own, which is an integral part of social interaction and relationships. Additionally, a University of Toronto study found that reading fiction decreases the need for cognitive closure, or the human desire for a clear answer that can often cause us to jump to conclusions. This means that reading fiction opens up the opportunity to think with more ambiguity and creativity.

3. Reading reduces stress

On top of these benefits for your brain, reading can help reduce stress (and doesn’t that sound nice during a pandemic?). A 2009 study at the University of Sussex measured heart rate and muscle tension during various activities to evaluate how they impacted stress. This study found that reading for just six minutes reduces stress levels by 68%. Reading was more effective at reducing stress than listening to music (61%), drinking a cup of coffee or tea (54%), or going for a walk (42%). The authors posited that reading is so relaxing because “you can escape from the worries and stress of the everyday world…[and] enter what is essentially an altered state of consciousness.”

4. Reading improves memory and lifespan

Reading can also have a positive impact on long term health. One study found that frequently engaging in cognitive activities such as reading can slow memory decline. Additionally, a Yale study of 3600 adults over 50 years of age found that those who read books for 30 minutes a day, as opposed to magazines or newspapers, lived about two years longer than those who did not. 

Inspired to pick up a book? Check out the most anticipated books of the year here. About to hit play on another episode? Whip up another batch of banana bread? Carry on with whatever gets you through this pandemic. 

Peer edited by Jeanne-Marie McPherson

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