Humans have been reading and writing since at least 3500 B.C, though the nature of reading has changed pretty significantly over the last 5,500 years.
Reading used to be something only reserved for high-born individuals and scholars. The regular, everyday people of the world would typically go their entire lives without ever learning to read. It’s only been in the last hundred or so years that literacy has become the norm.
In 1820, the global literacy rate was only about 12 percent. By 1900, it had only barely improved to just over 20 percent. In 2022, that number reached an incredible 87 percent, around seven billion people. Unlike in ancient times, it’s practically impossible to get through life these days without knowing how to read.
Reading is more than just a necessary tool for navigating today’s world. All kinds of additional brain benefits can come from reading. If you think of your brain as a muscle (though it’s technically an organ), reading would be the mental equivalent of lifting weights.
Read on to give yourself a workout that will leave you even more knowledgeable.
The 5 Brain Benefits of Reading
The human brain is a highly complex organ that requires near-constant stimulation.
For example — there’s a lot that we don’t know about dreams, but they seem to be at least partially inspired by a bored brain. The brain stays active as you sleep, so inventing engaging and creative dreams is one way to keep itself entertained.
The responsibility of mental stimulation for your brain when you’re awake, however, will fall on you. The occasional daydream can keep your mind active, but you will want to perform a few more engaging activities to keep it sharp.
One of the easiest (and most effective) ways to do that is to read. It doesn’t have to be classical literature, either. Just the act of reading alone can help strengthen your brain in a few powerful ways.
Strengthens Connections in Your Brain
The brain comprises three basic units: the forebrain, midbrain, and hindbrain. Within each of these three units, there are a variety of regions. Each different region has unique functions.
The region most associated with language comprehension is the left temporal cortex. By using this region to process and understand written words, the neurons inside will be put to work transferring the information.
Naturally, the same regions and neurons are also involved whenever you’re trying to process spoken language. However, the visual act of reading books requires a little more effort, making it more challenging than auditory language processing. It’s basically why most dogs have no problem learning around 165 words, but it’s virtually impossible for them to learn how to read.
The extra challenge brought on by reading can force your neurons to develop stronger connections with one another. It’s equivalent to lifting 50 pounds worth of materials at work each day. The muscles involved will have no choice but to adapt and grow stronger. Reading is the same for your brain, except that inter-neural connectivity is getting stronger.
Increases Your Overall Intelligence
It’s no secret that reading a lot of books will make you more knowledgeable on the topic they’re written on. If you read enough good books about any given topic, you can become a scholar and an expert. This goes for just about any writing style, from literary fiction to self-help books.
But that’s not exactly what we’re talking about here. You see, knowledge and intelligence are two different things.
Knowledge is a collection of skills and information that you’ve acquired. Intelligence is the ability to apply said knowledge. You can be the most knowledgeable person in the world, but it likely wouldn’t do you as much good if you don’t have the intelligence to use it correctly. Reading is one way that you can procure both.
First, it’s important to understand that several different types of intelligence exist. For IQ (intelligence quotient) tests, there are three intelligence types that are measured:
- Crystallized: Facts, data, and information previously acquired
- Fluid: Abstract thinking, problem-solving, and pattern detections
- Emotional: Identifying, regulating, and understanding emotions in yourself and others
Reading can help you to sharpen your intelligence in each different category in the following ways:
We’ve already talked about how reading increases your knowledge, so let’s focus on vocabulary for a second. There are approximately 171,146 words in the English language.
You’re unlikely to encounter every single one by reading, but you’re much more likely to encounter new ones. Seeing a new word you don’t recognize will likely have you looking it up in a dictionary or using context clues to figure it out. You’ll have expanded your vocabulary by one more word whenever you do that.
Fluid intelligence allows you to detect patterns and solve problems. In a way, reading comprehension is like a math equation. You’ll need to put the letters of each word together and add them to a sentence to comprehend its meaning.
Reading requires much more effort from your brain than you think. There are a ton of symbols and patterns involved with reading. The more you encounter them, the more familiar your brain becomes with them. Therefore, it will become more efficient at identifying similar patterns in the future and increase your ability to identify them.
Emotional intelligence allows you to experience and safely understand new emotions. Reading gives you a unique opportunity to put yourself into the shoes of a fictional character or a real person from history.
You’ll experience the mental state of other humans, which can help you better understand the emotions of others. Such a skill is crucial for developing healthy and fulfilling social relationships that are often complex.
Combining these benefits can improve the cognitive and non-cognitive functions of frequent readers. You’ll have more exposure to knowledge, problems, and emotions. The additional exposure will leave you more intelligent than you were before and likely increase your IQ by several points.
Helps Lower Your Stress Levels
Anyone can tell you that life can get stressful. There’s a lot that goes on in day-to-day life, and it doesn’t take much for the brain to get overwhelmed. Fortunately, reading is an excellent way to soothe your brain through distraction.
The act of reading fiction will take up a lot of brainpower. You’ll need to actively pay attention and comprehend the words to follow the text. It’s not like a movie where the information is showered upon you.
The pictures and sounds in movies will allow you to get the gist without using a ton of focus. Reading requires a lot more effort, making it easier to get lost in the words.
You can get so lost in reading that it could even reduce your stress levels by up to 68 percent. That number comes from a recent study where reading was more effective at stress management than listening to music, going for a walk, playing video games, or having a cup of tea.
The act of distraction is often enough to help lower stress levels. But actively engaging with your imagination by reading lets you enter an altered state of mind, where the problems causing stress are put on mute for a little while.
Aside from brain function and developing the connections between different areas of the brain, reading (especially reading the best books on the shelf) can work wonders for your mental health.
Improves Memory and Concentration
Earlier, we talked about the different types of intelligence. Fluid and crystallized intelligence are two cornerstones of being intelligent. Fluid intelligence requires intense concentration, and crystallized intelligence requires a strong memory. Reading (and making a few changes to your diet) is an excellent way to improve both of these abilities.
The main reason reading has a positive effect is the creation and stimulation of your neurons. The science is a bit complicated, but basically, your mind becomes more efficient at creating “mental maps” that store information. These “maps” help you process the words you’re reading faster and assist you when trying to recall them later.
Additionally, some studies suggest that reading more may delay the onset of Alzheimer’s and cognitive decline, among other health benefits.
Neuroscientists are still working out the ways reading may rewire the brain. But the general takeaway seems to be that regular reading can’t hurt.
Helps You Fall Asleep Faster
Sleep is one of the most beneficial activities for your brain. Unfortunately, the world is full of blue lights emitting from electronic screens and modern light bulbs. These blue lights are beneficial during the daytime as they help to boost your attention and improve your reaction times.
The problem is these effects are devastating during the night when you’re preparing for bed. Light of any kind suppresses melatonin, but blue light is especially effective at it.
Melatonin is the hormone that your brain produces in the presence of darkness. Its primary purpose is to regulate your sleep schedule by winding your brain down and preparing for sleep. By watching TV, scrolling through your phone, or surfing the web in the early evening, you can make it harder for your body to prepare for sleep.
That’s where reading a great book comes into the picture. There’s no blue light to be found with a good old-fashioned book. Sure, you’ll need a light to see the text at night. However, the blue light emitted from light bulbs is significantly less disruptive to your sleep than a screen.
So if you’re an avid e-reader, it might be time to switch to the old-school version — a good read physically in your hands from your local library or bookstore. It can make a big difference in helping you fall asleep faster, stay asleep longer, and get a higher quality of sleep.
Give Your Brain a Boost
It should be clear that reading is an excellent way to boost your brain power. Reading is often taken for granted, but it’s one of the healthiest activities for your brain. Just a few pages each day is all it takes to experience the variety of benefits listed above.
Looking for more ways to support your brain? Explore the MOSH blog here for neuroscience-rooted tips and tricks to give your brain the fuel it needs.
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Blue Light Has a Dark Side | Harvard Health
Mental Maps in Memory Retrieval and Comprehension | NCBI Bookshelf
Predictors and Impact of Arts Engagement During the COVID-19 Pandemic | Frontiers
Reading for Stress Relief | Taking Charge of Your Health & Wellbeing
Does Learning to Read Improve Intelligence? A Longitudinal Multivariate Analysis in Identical Twins From Age 7 to 16 | PMC
How Many Words Do You Need To Speak a Language? | BBC News
The Role of Intelligence Quotient and Emotional Intelligence in Cognitive Control Processes | Frontiers
Collective Intelligence and Knowledge Exploration: An Introduction | PMC
Reading Skill and Structural Brain Development | PMC
Canine Researcher Puts Dogs’ Intelligence on Par With 2-Year-Old Human | APA
Brain Map: Temporal Lobes | Queensland Health
Brain Basics: Know Your Brain | National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke
Why Your Brain Needs to Dream | Greater Good
This Is How Much the Global Literacy Rate Grew Over 200 Years | World Economic Forum
A brief history of literacy | UTA Online
Keep Reading to Keep Alzheimer’s at Bay | Fisher Center for Alzheimer’s Research Foundation