Reading transports us to worlds we would never see, introduces us to people we would never meet, and instills emotions we might never otherwise feel. It also provides an array of health benefits. Here are six scientific reasons you should be picking up more books.
1. Reading reduces stress.
In 2009, scientists at the University of Sussex in the UK assessed how different activities lowered stress by measuring heart rate and muscle tension. Reading a book or newspaper for just six minutes lowered people's stress levels by 68 percent—a stronger effect than going for a walk (42 percent), drinking a cup of tea or coffee (54 percent), or listening to music (61 percent). According to the authors, the ability to be fully immersed and distracted is what makes reading the perfect way to relieve stress.
2. Reading (especially reading books) may add years to your life.
A daily dose of reading may lengthen your lifespan. A team at Yale University followed more than 3600 adults over the age of 50 for 12 years. They discovered that people who reported reading books for 30 minutes a day lived nearly two years longer than those who read magazines or newspapers. Participants who read more than 3.5 hours per week were 23 percent less likely to die, and participants who read less than 3.5 hours per week were 17 percent less likely to die. "The benefits of reading books include a longer life in which to read them," the authors wrote.
3. Reading improves your language skills and knowledge of the world.
In the 1990s, reading pioneer Keith Stanovich and his colleagues conducted dozens of reading studies to assess the relationship between cognitive skills, vocabulary, factual knowledge, and exposure to certain fiction and nonfiction authors. They used the Author Recognition Test (ART), which is a strong predictor of reading skill. Stanovich tells Mental Floss that the average result of these studies was that avid readers, as measured by the ART, had around a 50 percent larger vocabulary and 50 percent more fact-based knowledge.
Reading both predicts and contributes to those skills, according to Donald Bolger, a human development professor at the University of Maryland who researches how the brain learns to read. "It's like a snowball effect," he tells Mental Floss. "The better you are at reading, the more words you learn. The more words you learn, the better you are at reading and comprehending—especially things that would have been outside your domain of expertise."
4. Reading enhances empathy.
For a 2013 Harvard study, a group of volunteers either read literary fiction (such as "Corrie" by Alice Munro), popular fiction (such as "Space Jockey" by Robert Heinlein), nonfiction (such as "How the Potato Changed the World" by Charles Mann), or nothing. Across five experiments, those who read literary fiction performed better on tasks like predicting how characters would act and identifying the emotion encoded in facial expressions. These speak to the ability to understand others' mental states, which scientists call Theory of Mind.
"If we engage with characters who are nuanced, unpredictable, and difficult to understand, then I think we're more likely to approach people in the real world with an interest and humility necessary for dealing with complex individuals," study lead author David Kidd, a postdoctoral fellow at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, tells Mental Floss.
5. Reading boosts creativity and flexibility.
"In our real lives, we often feel like we have to make a decision, and therefore we close our mind to information that could eventually help us," says Maja Djikic, a psychologist at the University of Toronto. "When we read fiction, we practice keeping our minds open because we can afford uncertainty."
Djikic came to that conclusion after she conducted a study in which 100 people were assigned to read a fictional story or a nonfiction essay. The participants then completed questionnaires intended to assess their level of cognitive closure, which is the need to reach a conclusion quickly and avoid ambiguity in the decision-making process. The fiction readers emerged as more flexible and creative than the essay readers—and the effect was strongest for people who read on a regular basis.
6. Reading can help you transform as a person.
It's not often that we can identify moments when our personality changes and evolves, but reading fiction may help us do just that. The same University of Toronto research team asked 166 people to fill out questionnaires regarding their emotions and key personality traits, based on the widely used Big Five Inventory, which measures extraversion, conscientiousness, agreeableness, emotional stability/neuroticism, and openness. Then half of the group read Anton Chekhov's short story "The Lady with the Toy Dog," about a man who travels to a resort and has an affair with a married woman. The other half of the group read a similar nonfiction version presented as a report from divorce court. Afterwards, everyone answered the same personality questions they'd answered previously—and many of the fiction readers' responses had significantly changed. They saw themselves differently after reading about others' fictional experience. The nonfiction readers didn't undergo this shift in self-reflection.
"As you identify with another person, a protagonist in the story, you enter into a piece of life that you wouldn't otherwise have known. You have emotions or circumstances that you wouldn't have otherwise understood," Keith Oatley, a University of Toronto psychologist and one of the study's authors, tells Mental Floss. Imagining new experiences creates a space in which readers can grow and change.
Do you love reading? Are you eager to know incredibly interesting facts about novelists and their works? Then pick up our new book, The Curious Reader: A Literary Miscellany of Novels and Novelists, out May 25!
This piece originally ran in 2018.