These benefits compound, so keep adding books to your summer TBR (to be read) pile, and read on for seven of the benefits of reading books, whether enjoyed in a beach chair, or not.
- Brenda Rapp, PhD, professor and chair of the Department of Cognitive Neuroscience at Krieger School of Arts and Sciences at Johns Hopkins University
- Eve. V. Clark, PhD
- Jade Wu, PhD, board-certified behavioral sleep medicine specialist, sleep expert at Hatch, and author of Hello Sleep
- Lorenzo Norris, MD, associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at George Washington School of Medicine & Health Sciences
- Viktoriya Karakcheyeva, MD, MS, NCC, LCPC-SP, LCADAS, director of behavioral health at the Resiliency and Well-being Center at George Washington University’s School of Medicine & Health Sciences
7 benefits of reading books, according to experts
1. Keeps brain systems working and sharp
While the benefits of reading extend to the whole body, it’s a cerebral process. One key benefit of reading books is that it strengthens your brain by engaging various systems to process what’s on the page. “Reading is an interesting activity in that it really does recruit all of these areas and requires you to coordinate them in ways that are interesting and presumably good for you,” says Brenda Rapp, PhD, cognitive neuroscientist and chair of the Department of Cognitive Neuroscience at Johns Hopkins University. Repeating these processes has been linked with overall brain health, and reading is an activity recommended by the National Institute on Aging for good cognitive health.
How the brain processes words from books
When your brain encounters written words, the four lobes of the cerebral cortex (the outer layer of the brain that plays a crucial role in higher cognitive functions such as thinking, perception, and voluntary movement) cooperate to turn the words on the page into the stories you envision, says Dr. Rapp: The occipital lobe, the part of the brain responsible for processing visual information that houses the visual cortex, works to scan the actual words on the page; the parietal lobe, which is about spatial representation, also processes the input of the words and letters on a sentence-level by helping you understand that certain letters form specific words; the temporal lobe, which has to do with language recognition and memory, draws on your memory of the spellings and meanings of words, and draws on your bank of knowledge to figure out what unfamiliar words mean; and the frontal lobe, which governs executive functioning, corresponds to comprehension and understanding.
And don’t worry if reading books on the page isn’t necessarily your thing because there are benefits to consuming audiobooks too, says Dr. Rapp. The brain processes reading vs. listening much the same WAY, except the auditory cortex is involved to process speech and sounds.
The benefits of ‘keeping your brain sharp’
Every time you read, you strengthen the neural connections in your brain, which makes them happen more easily and efficiently. Dr. Rapp explains that while the brain isn’t a muscle, “in some sort of basic way, it works a lot like your muscles in the sense that it benefits from repetition.”
2. Increased longevity
Continuously exercising these systems to keep them in good working order has major longevity benefits, too, bookworms—there’s some research that says reading helps you live longer. These benefits come from the association of reading with stress relief and preserving and increasing cognitive function.
One of these benefits is less or slower cognitive decline. A study published in 2016 in Social Science & Medicine found that book readers had a 20-percent reduction in mortality compared to those who didn't read books at all. Using data from the annual Health and Retirement Study, researchers analyzed 3,635 participants over age 50. Although the study didn’t examine the difference between print and audio books, it did find that fiction books conferred more of a benefit than reading magazines and newspapers.
Another longitudinal study published online in 2020 by the Cambridge University Press found that reading protected cognitive function among 1,962 Taiwanese adults over age 64, who were examined over a period of 14 years. They found that among people of all education levels, reading often was associated with less cognitive decline.
3. Lowers stress
One other key advantage of reading books is the utility reading provides as a stress-relieving activity, experts say. Because reading is an immersive activity, it requires your full focus and attention, which is useful in relieving stress. Chronic stress confers a host of physical and mental health issues, says Lorenzo Norris, MD, associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at George Washington School of Medicine & Health Sciences, and reading can play a role in alleviating it. “Reading really requires a certain level of focus and mindfulness, and that level of engagement and focus is a way for us to take a step away from the difficulties of the world,” he says.
"Reading really requires a certain level of focus and mindfulness, and that level of engagement and focus is a way for us to take a step away from the difficulties of the world."—Lorenzo Norris, MD
The escapism of reading helps with this, too. According to Viktoriya Karakcheyeva, MD, director of behavioral health at the Resiliency and Well-Being Center at George Washington University’s School of Medicine & Health Sciences, reading can help lower stress because of its immersive quality. “It works fast because your mind pretty much immediately escapes into a place that is freed from the stressors of your own daily life,” she says.
4. Develops and strengthens social connections
There’s a reason the oral tradition of storytelling has persisted among humans for so long—bonding over stories, whether fictional or real, connects us. If you’ve ever told a friend or loved one about a book you enjoyed, or even gone online to post about it on Goodreads or to find other fans, you’ve felt this.
Reading can facilitate opportunities to connect with others in an authentic way that contributes to more and stronger social relationships. Tight and healthy relationships, which are essential for good physical and mental health, are formed by genuine, authentic connection and conversation, says Dr. Norris, and bonding over shared interests like reading provides a built-in conversation topic and reason to connect.
What’s more: “Reading is fun, and it allows you to form connections in a very practical way because it gives you something to talk about that you feel passionate about,” says Dr. Norris. “Anything that allows for authentic connection is helpful.” This exchange of interests forms the basis for deeper relationships. He mentions that he regularly talks with his daughter about the Star Wars books she enjoys, and these discussions about the characters and plots strengthen their bond.
Even if you’re shy or introverted, sharing a common interest with someone else may make it a bit easier to strike up a conversation, whether in-person or online. Think about why there are so many active online forums for book lovers to connect to one another, for example there are Reddit communities dedicated to specific book series and BookTok, a hashtag where TikTok users categorize all their book recommendations and discuss their favorites in videos. Virtual and IRL book clubs have long been means to foster connections, too—unpacking and discussing stories that made you think or feel something with others feels good and is good for us, too.
Fostering social connections in any possible way is important for overall well-being and longevity. Loneliness is a major issue in American society that negatively impacts health and well-being, says Dr. Norris, especially since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, and he says that finding easier ways to connect with others, for example through discussing books, can help counteract the negative effects of loneliness.
5. More active imagination
Readers of George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series may be familiar with a much-pinned quotation from A Dance With Dragons, where he writes that “a reader lives a thousand lives before he dies, the man who never reads lives only one.” It’s true—another benefit of reading is its ability to activate the imagination.
When you read, it’s up to you to use an author’s words to bring characters, settings, and conversations to life, and this process engages various parts of the brain. "When you're imagining doing something, you're actually engaging the same neural networks that you would be if you were experiencing it—it's activating things, and you're immersing yourself," says Dr. Norris. This is the key principle behind exposure therapy, he says—imagining a scenario makes it possible to grasp what it’s like to actually experience it. "When you are reading, all of your neural networks are firing to recreate that person and those thoughts," Dr. Norris adds.
6. More empathy for others
Part of why reading is beneficial is because it allows us to look beyond ourselves and appreciate the experiences of others, say both Dr. Norris and Dr. Karakcheyeva. Because reading fiction especially requires us to use our imaginations to envision characters and settings, we are better able to understand the feelings and motivations of others. This act of transportation can be beneficial because it helps you get outside yourself and experience realities far different from your own, which can build empathy. "We cannot possibly live all of these scenarios [we encounter in books] ourselves, so [reading] does provide that ability for us, which is great," says Dr. Karakcheyeva.
Cultivating empathy and having appreciation for others' experiences and feelings helps develop and strengthen many beneficial prosocial behaviors, actions that benefit others or society as a whole, such as demonstrating kindness, cooperation, and concern for the well-being of others.
Research has found, in turn, that reading fiction specifically may make people more empathetic. A 2013 study conducted by Dutch researchers and published in the PLOS One journal found that reading fiction books specifically influenced the level of empathy readers felt, but only if they emotionally identified with the story.
Because reading is a great way to gain information and experience others' lives, Dr. Karakcheyeva adds that it can also be an opportunity to find and strengthen your own voice and build your own belief systems, which develops your sense of self.
7. Better (and quicker) sleep
If you’ve ever been told to not stay up late reading, you can also rest assured that being a bookworm will help ease you into that much needed shut-eye (as long as you actually do get enough hours of sleep). Reading before bed has long been connected to good sleep because it’s a proven method of relaxation and stress relief, and can be a helpful part of a pre-bedtime routine that facilitates winding down and readying for sleep.
“An important part of your bedtime routine is to switch gears from doing to being, getting away from the goal-oriented connectivity we do all day long—reading is a nice bookend to that,” says sleep psychologist Jade Wu, PhD, sleep advisor at Mattress Firm and author of Hello Sleep. “It makes you more of a receiver of information rather than an agent in doing some something, so it tells your body to switch gears and that it’s time to simply ‘be.’” A calm and focused mind is key to ease into sleep, and the concentration and focused attention of absorbing a story on a page facilitates that.
Besides easing you to sleep faster, studies have shown that reading can improve the quality of your sleep itself—an online randomized trial conducted in 2021 found that participants who read before bed self-reported experiencing better sleep than those who didn't.
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