What Happens If You Read Every Day?
In his role as a prolific author and guru to writers everywhere, Stephen King is often quoted for his advice to writers, both established authors and wannabe writers. “If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: You must write a lot and you must read a lot.”
What can reading do for the average person? Developing a daily reading habit is beneficial in many different ways. To understand the importance of reading daily it is helpful to think of the brain like other parts of the body. Just as the muscles require regular movement and stimulation to prevent atrophy, reading exercises the brain. The more you read, the more the brain expands.
The Effects of Reading on Children
British researchers found that young readers are often more intelligent as adults. The long-term study compared the abilities of sets of twins. The twins with higher scores in their early reading skills performed better in intelligence tests as teens.
Study after study reveals what many people have known for many years. Reading to children is a proven way to improve their cognitive skills. Children who are read to at a young age and then go on to develop a healthy reading habit as they go through school develop critical thinking skills. Those skills continue throughout childhood and into adulthood.
How Reading Benefits Adults
In 2013, researchers measured the effects of reading on a group of participants. Study participants read a novel over a period of nine days. As they read, researchers measured the effects of the reading on their brains.
As the novel reached certain plot points, brain activity increased in different areas. As the reading progressed, brain activity continued. This activity was also measured in the participants for days after they finished the book. These increased brain connections were especially active in the area of the brain that responds to physical movement and pain.
In addition to measurable increases in brain connection and activity, a daily reading habit can create a number of other benefits.
Expand Your Empathy
Another study showed that people who read a particular type of fiction experience an increase in “theory of mind,” or what the researchers called the ability to maintain, navigate, and build relationships. These readers read works of literary fiction, a genre that dives deep into the lives of its well-developed characters. The longer the readers read, the higher their “theory of mind” abilities were heightened.
Empathy often comes as a consequence of exposure to people with different experiences than our own. Reading about others on a regular basis allows us to experience other cultures, perspectives, and lives that are different from our own. While the study looked at the outcome of reading literary fiction in general, learning about others through nonfiction works like biographies, autobiographies, or historical nonfiction teaches us to see the world through another person’s eyes and can often leave a lasting impression on our own thoughts.
Expand Your Vocabulary
Reading often expands your exposure to more words. The more you read, the more you are exposed to those words used in context, which also teaches meaning in a natural manner. Your brain learns the new word and essentially saves it to your personal mental dictionary.
An advanced vocabulary acquired through reading will also improve linguistic skills. An expanded vocabulary increases verbal skills. In other words, the more you read and the better your vocabulary, the better you will be at speaking.
While there are those who would argue that listening to audiobooks is not the same as reading, hearing a narrator read words to you can improve your ability to pronounce and recognize new words. Some research points to reading printed words as a superior reading experience. Listening to a book is far better than not reading at all.
As it turns out, Stephen King is correct in his instructions to writers. Reading improves not only your vocabulary and public speaking abilities but also improves your writing skills. Increased exposure to words by reading makes you a better speller, improves your grammar skills, and helps you better articulate your ideas.
Lower Your Risk of Cognitive Brain Ailments
It is an established fact that reading increases vocabulary. Taking that a step further, Spanish researchers studied 300 people over the age of 50. Those participants who scored higher on vocabulary tests had a lower risk of developing cognitive decline.
A Hong Kong study looked at 15,000 people over the age of 65 over a period of five years. Those participants who engaged in activities that stimulated their brains, like completing puzzles, playing board games, and reading, had a significantly lower risk of dementia.
Another study in 2013 revealed that readers with a lifelong reading habit had protection from Lewy bodies and amyloid tangles and burdens. The presence of these substances in the brain is related to cognitive decline and increases the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease.
Diminish Stress and Anxiety
Reading for just a few minutes each day significantly reduces the stress of the reader. A British study found that reading for a mere six minutes lowered stress levels by more than 68 percent.
Anxiety causes raised blood pressure, increased heart rate, and many other physical symptoms. Reading is an almost immediate antidote to some of those physical symptoms. Your body has a physical reaction to reading. Even if the book is a suspenseful thriller, picking up something to read causes fast changes in your heart rate and muscle tension.
Aside from relief from physical symptoms, reading provides an escape from the worries and situations that create stress in the first place. Sinking into a good story can take you away from whatever ails you, even if it’s just for a little while.
Work Your Brain Muscle
Are you looking for a brain rewire? Pick up a book! The more you read, the more you expose your brain to complex thinking in the form of metaphors, abstract ideas, and imagery. When you read another person’s take on a particular philosophy point, for example, your mind processes new ideas and compares old, preconceived ideas to these new thoughts. The more your brain is challenged creatively, the more active it remains.
Increase Your Ability to Solve Problems
Libraries and bookstores are filled with self-help books, instruction books, and how-to manuals. There is nothing unusual about turning to reading for help when we are looking for a set of instructions to solve problems. The effects of books of this type are self-evident.
In general, reading increases problem-solving skills. Just as a regular reading habit increases empathy and cultural knowledge, some studies point to the benefits of reading thrillers and mystery novels. As complicated plots unfold, trying to figure out whodunit gives the brain a real workout. Mystery plots demonstrate cause and effect, stimulating critical thinking skills as the reader pieces clues together to solve the riddle.
Reading Improves Your Sleep
Just as reading is a known remedy for stress and anxiety, the relaxing effect of reading can help you relax and improve your sleep. Reading before bed reduces exposure to electronic devices. Too much screen time too close to bed overstimulates the brain and often leads to insomnia.
Diving deep into a work of fiction that pulls you deeply into the story can be likened to a state of mediation. Deep reading mimics the physical effects of meditation. Your breathing slows down, your heartbeat regulates, and your blood pressure lowers. Daily reading is a practice in mindfulness.
Read Out Loud
As part of their language arts curriculum, school children are often required to engage in silent reading. But a former US president practiced reading out loud to increase his understanding. Abraham Lincoln has often been quoted explaining the reasons he indulged in reading newspapers out loud in his office every morning. He said that reading out loud meant he experienced what he read in two ways. First, he visibly saw the words in front of him. Secondly, he heard what he was reading, and doing both helped him retain what he read better.
President Lincoln was on to something. Studies show that reading words aloud enables the reader to retain what they have read better than simply reading to themselves. The benefits of reading out loud are even superior to being read to because the act of pronouncing and speaking the words activates different parts of the brain. Reading aloud helps to encode what is being read into the memory.
As important as reading is for prolific and aspiring authors, it is also essential for the general public. Reading often, even daily, can literally strengthen your brain. The more you read, the more you know. Many of the world’s brain trusts are made up of people who, among other things, read a lot. Many world leaders make the news with their current favorite reads. Looking at these leaders, it is clear that literacy might be one of their secrets to success.
Author George R. R. Martin, best known for penning the books that inspired the Game of Thrones series, said, “A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies. The man who never reads lives only one.” In addition to improved skills and brain function, reading often makes you a more informed and well-rounded person. Exposure to different thoughts and ideas teaches us things we never knew about the greater world around us and enables us to experience things we never would have otherwise.