These days it seems like reading is becoming a thing of the past, what with podcasts, TED Talks, and YouTube videos becoming more popular vectors of information and entertainment. But a growing body of scientific literature suggests that reading actual books may be more important than we realize for enhancing certain parts of our brains and delaying the onset of dementia.
The research is still in the early stages, but when they scanned brain waves, the scientists found that when you read about a character playing tennis, areas of your brain light up as if you were physically out there on the court yourself. When you read about fictional characters very different from yourself, it boosts areas of your brain associated with emotional intelligence, which help you understand what others are thinking by reading their emotions. Researchers also found that deep reading, when you get really absorbed in a book, builds up our ability to focus and grasp complex ideas.
Just learning to read, as a child, has profound impacts on brain development, creating a specialized area in your left ventral occipital temporal region, increased verbal memory, and thickening your corpus callosum, which is the information highway that connects the left and right hemispheres of your brain. Exposure to vocabulary through reading leads to higher scores on general tests of intelligence for children.
Research published in Neurology also suggests that regular reading may slow the inevitable decline in memory and brain function as we age. Frequent brain exercise—deep reading, but also playing chess or solving puzzles—was shown to lower mental decline by 32 percent. Plus, people who engaged in brain exercise were 2.5 times less likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease than those who were not. Also, a 2009 study by researchers at Sussex University found that reading can reduce stress by as much as 68 percent. Losing yourself in a thoroughly engrossing book can help you escape the worries and stresses of the everyday world, by participating in the domain of the author’s imagination.
The bottom line is that reading isn’t just a way to cram facts into your brain, no matter what your high school teachers may have told you. It’s a way to continuously rewire your brain to become more effective and efficient, to strengthen your ability to imagine alternative scenarios when you make decisions, to remember details, and think through complex problems. It doesn’t just make you more knowledgeable—you can get that from a TED Talk. Reading makes us all functionally smarter.