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How Reading Rewires Your Brain for the Better

The impact of reading on the human brain has proven both puzzling and illuminating in the field of neuroscience. The concept of reading has only existed for around 5,000 years, making it a relatively recent adaptive ability in humans, according to linguist and neuroscientist Maryanne Wolf. Yet this recent ability causes the brain to change.

Modern research has unquestionably displayed that the reading brain is far more activated than the illiterate brain. How is the brain so sparked by enjoying a good book or studying a new subject?

Check out some of the intriguing ways the human brain is rewired by reading—and go pick up a new book while you’re at it to reap the benefits.

Strengthens the Processes of the Brain

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Reading a book enhances the brain in myriad ways. A study from Emory University found that our brains quite literally “light up” when reading. The study assessed readers as they read a book during an MRI screening. Results showed that the brain activated more the deeper the reader went into the story and remained activated for several days after they finished the book.

These complex responses in the brain—particularly somatosensory and motor cortex—were researched and demonstrated in findings that proved the brain is, in a sense, “rewired” by reading through creating new neural networks and strengthening white matter.

Improves Memory and Reduces the Likelihood of Dementia

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Reading can improve memory by enhancing the ability for verbal recall. It keeps short-term and long-term memory activated as you follow the storyline in a book. A study conducted by The Beckman Institute indicated that older adults who continuously engage in reading for pleasure experience a preservation of memory skills as they age. The results showed that both episodic memory (the memory helping us to recall events) and working memory (the memory helping us hold things in our minds and keep track) were strengthened by reading.

Additionally, findings from The American Academy of Neurology displayed a marked 32% reduction in age-related Alzheimer’s in older adults who engage in reading, as well as delaying onset by around 5 years.

Helps Lower Stress Levels 

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Reading can reduce your stress by an impressive 68%, according to a study from Mindlab International at Sussex University. The findings indicated that the simple act of unwinding with a good book for just six minutes can effectively slow your heart rate, lower your blood pressure, and relax your muscles.

The long-term benefits are promising, too. Establishing a reading habit for just thirty minutes per day has been shown to majorly improve the physical symptoms of stress. It doesn’t matter what genre you read or how you consume—audiobooks are implicated in the study as well—you have a lot to gain as long as you can dedicate the time absent of any interruptions. 

Develops Concentration and Focus

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In a 2015 Canadian study conducted to measure attention spans, findings demonstrated that the average human attention span currently stands at a mere 8 seconds, down from 12 seconds in the year 2000 likely due to the rise in the immediate satisfaction granted by technology. However, reading can remarkably improve attention span as discovered in a study from Universal Journal of Educational Research.

The study examined fourth-grade children’s attention span related to reading, and results showed that kids with a reading habit had enhanced reading speed, prosody, word recognition, and comprehension. Many of us can likely relate, as we often experience a deep, enjoyable flow state when reading, rewarding focus instead of distraction. Reading is proof we can train our ability to concentrate and focus.

Increases Creativity and Imagination

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If you’re already a voracious reader, you may have found that reading has inspired you in your creative endeavors. It’s not all in your imagination, either. A study conducted between Appalachian State University and Angelo State University showed that students who read for pleasure (especially in the fiction genre) demonstrated higher levels of self-actualization.

From this criteria, they determined that reading contributed to higher levels of creativity as well as better academic performance, writing skills, openness to new experiences, eagerness to learn, psychological absorption, and more. Most of these neurological enrichments occur in the occipital lobe, the area of the brain responsible for processing visual information. 

Boosts Mental Health

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Science backs reading's benefits in almost all areas of life, including mental health. One notable treatment for mental health that has emerged recently is bibliotherapy, the therapeutic use of reading to heal psychological illness.

There are numerous studies conducted on this correlation, including one study from The Clinical Psychology Review that found that long-term effects of bibliotherapy reduced depressive symptoms. Another study from Social Science and Medicine reported that a reading habit can vitally promote longevity, adding years to our lives and improving our cognitive function. It’s no secret that books can help us feel more connected to the world and give us feelings of pleasure as we read. We can choose to read about something relatable that may assist us through a difficult time or read something uplifting that encourages feelings of well-being. 

Magnifies Communication Skills

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While reading may seem like a quiet, internal activity for the brain, studies have indicated that reading actually increases our ability to communicate effectively. A study from The International Journal of Linguistics, Literature, and Culture concluded that reading comprehension is one of the most important life skills to learn in relation to communication in high school students.

Whether it’s speaking or writing, reading can have an immense positive effect. Furthermore, during a reading session, the brain analyzes and stores the linguistic style you read, which then helps enhance your ability to communicate clearly in all methods of communication. Reading may also promote communication skills as you seek out others who relate to or share in the reading experience, establishing new relationships and encouraging meaningful discussion.

Generates New Patterns in the Brain

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On top of all the other complex mechanisms in your brain, as you read, your brain’s ability for neuroplasticity also creates entirely new patterns. Research out of Stanford University found that any kind of reading provides stimulation in the brain, which in turn gives your brain a workout in multiple cognitive functions. They discovered specifically that reading a novel closely for literary study and thinking about its value is a stronger exercise for the brain than reading for leisure.

According to the same study, reading also creates new connections by enhancing our capacity for recognizing faces, places, and words. The report stated that certain areas of the brain, especially the myelin, showed increased growth in response to those who read versus those who do not. 

Adds to the Bank of Vocabulary

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Avid readers will likely be able to relate: reading broadens vocabulary. When we engage in reading, we can link context to unknown words, helping us gain vocabulary along the way, even if we were previously unaware of the meaning. Reading context helps the brain learn a new word faster than memorization techniques because we are reading an example of the word’s usage in a book rather than simply looking at a definition.

A study from the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association proved similar results from evaluating children who read. They discovered that kids who read above average possessed a higher range of vocabulary than kids who read under average. Additionally, adolescents who read in their spare time were found to know 26% more words than non-reading peers.

Enhances Language Processing

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Our brains love to learn new skills, so it’s no surprise that reading can improve our ability to understand and process language—particularly when learning a new language. In a study conducted at the University of New York at Buffalo, researchers reported that the kind of language people have access to, such as in various types of books, directly shapes how they process language.

In another study published in The Annual Review of Applied Linguistics found that illiterate adults showed significant variations from literate adults in oral processing tasks that require linguistic awareness. Reading virtually changes the way our brains process oral language and cognitive tasks. Thus, the positive effect of books on our ability to process language is monumental. 

Heightens Capacity for Empathy

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If you’ve ever lost yourself in a book as you connect and relate to characters, then you probably understand how reading a book can boost your empathy. In a study from the University of Rochester, research found that fiction readers had more social proficiency and scored higher on EQ (emotional quotient) tests than non-readers. Reading books were shown to improve our capacity to put ourselves in the shoes of others with compassion and understanding.

The study even discovered that positive changes in the capacity for empathy were evident in only one week of reading, and this outcome was detected in brain waves as well. The imaging displayed that a person reading a specific passage, such as playing tennis, directly correlated with areas of the brain that lit up as the reader imagined themselves playing tennis or watching tennis. 

Broadens Knowledge

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There’s no doubt that reading is an excellent way to learn and take in new information. In the words of American writer Tomie dePaola, “Reading is important because if you can read, you can learn anything about everything and everything about anything.” Many of us love to run to YouTube for quick lessons on various topics, and of course, that’s a totally valid way to learn, but nothing compares to diving into the depths of a book, and research has shown that consuming those other forms of media has less of a positive impact on the brain. Reading as a core teaching module is correlated with an increase in comprehension of any given topic.

Provides Relaxing Entertainment

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Chances are, if you’re already a lover of reading, you find a lot of entertainment value in books. Books impact our health and brains positively and give us a wonderful form of pleasure and enjoyment, perhaps the most basic reason for reading. Neuroscientific research has proven that the act of reading boosts the neurotransmitters in our brain—especially dopamine (related to pleasure and reward) and oxytocin (related to social bonding and trust).

A survey from Pew Research Center also investigated the rate of reading in American adults, and the results were excellent: 75% of people reported having read a book in the past 12 months, with an average of 14 books read in that period—a pretty good indicator that reading is a prevalent hobby for most of us.

20 Books to Embrace Your True Self

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Want a boost of self-acceptance and confidence? This curated list is full of wonderful choices.

Author: Jorie Logan

Title: Writer

Expertise: Travel, Wellness, Advocacy

Jorie Logan is a copywriter, brand strategist, and traveler with extensive solo travel experience. She's passionate about sharing stories that empower women to explore their world and discover their authentic joyful selves.