The Nuance

Why Reading Books Is Important for the Brain

The decline of book reading may have costly implications for cognition and social skills

Markham Heid
Elemental
Published in
5 min readMay 2, 2019

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Photo by Thought Catalog on Unsplash

Every week, the Nuance will go beyond the basics, offering a deep and researched look at the latest science and expert insights on a buzzed-about health topic.

TThanks to the text-centric nature of internet content, it’s possible that the average American today is reading — or at least skimming — more words in a given day than people of previous generations. Book reading, however, is on the decline and has been for decades.

Back in 1978, just 8% of Americans said they had not read a book during the previous year, according to a Gallup poll. Last year, that figure had jumped to 24% — and that included listening to audiobooks — according to a Pew Research Center survey.

Experts say the abandonment of book reading may have some unappealing consequences for cognition. “People are clearly reading fewer books now than they used to, and that has to have a cost because we know book reading is very good cognitive exercise,” says Ken Pugh, director of research at the Yale-affiliated Haskins Laboratories, which examines the importance of spoken and written language.

Pugh says the process of reading a book involves “a highly variable set of skills that are deep and complex” and that activate all of the brain’s major domains. “Language, selective attention, sustained attention, cognition, and imagination — there’s no question reading is going to strengthen all those,” he says. In particular, reading novels and works of narrative non-fiction — basically, books that tell a story — train a reader’s imagination and aspects of cognition that other forms of reading mostly neglect, he says.

Pugh says there’s debate right now among educators and academics about whether certain types of reading are superior or deficient compared to others. A common juxtaposition is between reading online in order to acquire information and reading a novel for enjoyment. But Pugh says both activities clearly offer benefits, and so the real risk is in abandoning one in favor of the other.

“Reading helps us to take the perspective of…

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Markham Heid
Elemental

I’m a long-time contributor at TIME and other media orgs. I write mostly about health. I grew up in Michigan, but these days I live in southwest Germany.