Why Reading Books Is Important for the Brain
The decline of book reading may have costly implications for cognition and social skills
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.
Thanks 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 characters we normally wouldn’t interact with, and to give us a sense of their psychological experiences.”
“There are only so many minutes a day to do things that are educational and good for the brain, and if all that time is spent clicking on hyperlinks and surfing the web and none is spent on reading books, I think the brain is poorer for it,” he says.
Along with strengthening your brain, there’s evidence that book reading may help you connect with friends and loved ones. “Many have theorized that reading fiction improves social skills because fiction often focuses on interpersonal relationships,” says Maria Eugenia Panero, a research associate at the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence.
Panero highlights a 2013 study that found reading passages of highbrow “literary” fiction — as opposed to non-fiction or popular fiction — led to improvements on tests that measured readers’ theory of mind. “Theory of mind is defined as the ability to recognize the internal states of others — their thoughts, beliefs, intentions, emotions, etc.,” she says.
The implication of this research was that, by reading literary fiction — even a little bit — people could improve their ability to recognize and empathize with the feelings and viewpoints of people who were different from themselves. “It was exciting because it was a causational study,” meaning reading fiction actually seemed to make one aspect of a person’s brain better, she says.
Unfortunately, when Panero and her colleagues tried to replicate the 2013 study’s findings, they failed. “We did, however, consistently find that a lifetime of reading fiction predicts your theory of mind,” she says. The benefits may not be immediate, but it’s possible that reading books helps you to better understand and communicate with other people, she says. “Reading helps us to take the perspective of different characters we normally wouldn’t interact with, and to give us a sense of their psychological experiences and how they interact with other people and situations.”
While some non-fiction books or even TV may offer similar insights, she says people are unlikely to get the same depth or richness from non-book forms of media. “Reading requires more mental energy and imagination than TV, which is more of a passive medium,” she says.
More research suggests book reading improves vocabulary, and possessing a broad vocabulary isn’t just useful for its own sake, Panero says. “It helps us to describe our experiences and emotions to others in a clear way.” This, in turn, may help us form and maintain close relationships, she says.
Other experts say there’s evidence that reading traditional books — the kind that are bound and printed on paper — may offer benefits not associated with e-readers or audiobooks. “We’ve found that reading from screens tends to be less efficient — meaning it takes longer,” says David Daniel, a professor of psychology at James Madison University.
A lot of Daniel’s research focuses on the ways people absorb and process information in education settings. One of his studies, published in 2010, found students who listened to an audio version of a text performed worse on a comprehension quiz than students who had read the same text on paper. His work has shown that the freedom to briefly pause in order to reread or consider a sentence sets reading apart from audiobooks.
Other studies have found that readers comprehend long sections of text less fully when reading on a screen instead of on paper. Still more research has found paper reading also beats screen reading when it comes to student comprehension scores. “I think reading from screens somehow changes the reading experience,” Daniel says.
It’s important to note that most of the research comparing one medium to another is preliminary, Pugh says. “Most of what we can say today is based on common sense and insights based on what we know about strengthening the brain.”
Still, he adds, “I think we can say that a society that doesn’t encourage attention and imagination and story reading is losing part of its strength.”