If you love reading, then you'll know how incredible it is to get lost in a work of fiction. Once you're in the zone, it's as if you're transported into a dreamlike state where you can touch, taste, and feel the surroundings and characters that are being described. You can breeze through a good book, unaware even that you're reading words or turning page after page. A good story can affect you and stay with you, long after you've closed the cover. I had just finished reading Calypso by David Sedaris when I realized that the book hadn't just helped me pass some time during lockdown, but it had brought me joy, laughter, and a sense of calm amongst the storm of this new normal. Does reading bring more than a little escapism? Is it, in fact, a mindfulness tool for those who find meditation too frustrating for a mind that's forever wandering? I called on five experts to reveal exactly what is happening to our brains, mood, mental health, and more when we read a good book.
What Reading Does to Our Brains
Reading plays such a crucial part in learning when we are young—surely, those benefits don't go away once we're older? According to the University of Rochester, our brains are fully formed by age 25. But can reading as adults help keep our brains fit and healthy? In a word, yes. "The benefits of reading on our cognition are well-documented and are associated with increased cognitive function, working memory and higher-order thinking such as creative problem-solving," says learning expert and founder of Tassomai, Murray Morrison. "Put simply, the sustained, gentle effort of building images in your head as you read keeps your brain fitter than more passive forms of entertainment, like film or TV."
And where a film is often over in 90 minutes, a novel may take days or weeks to complete. "This exercises the memory and gives us time to unconsciously speculate on the directions the plot may take, stimulating the imagination," Morrison explains.
Put simply, the sustained, gentle effort of building images in your head as you read keeps your brain fitter than more passive forms of entertainment, like film or TV.
In fact, reading goes beyond just stimulating your imagination. Natalia Ramsden, the founder of brain optimization clinic SOFOS Associates in London, explains that "when we read certain things, the part of our brain that is activated is the same part as if we were doing those things. Fiction acts as a sort of simulator and this has numerous implications for the way we ‘exercise’ parts of the brain, form new synapses, and strengthen existing ones." This helps to explain why a sad story can leave us feeling emotionally fraught, whereas a thriller could have us on the edge of our seat.
Reading is something that is worth factoring into your daily routine, just as you would brushing your teeth or doing yoga. "Reading is an activity which can keep the brain young—with every page turned or chapter devoured, the brain is working to decipher, store and retain more information," notes Dr. Emer MacSweeney, consultant neuroradiologist at Re:Cognition Health. "Reading provides mental exercise, which is very important in helping to protect the brain against cognitive decline in diseases such as Alzheimer’s. [It] heightens brain function and can help parts of the brain connect. Your brain is a learning machine and it needs to keep learning to optimize performance and improve your memory and thinking ability."
"Reading is more neurobiologically challenging than other methods of gathering information, such as speech or listening," adds MacSweeney. "It helps the brain process information more effectively both verbally and visually."
Not only is reading a good exercise for your brain, but it also helps help you relax and the act of it reduces stress in your body and mind, which can lead to improved mental and physical health. MacSweeney says that reading before bed is a good idea to help you unwind and prepare your body for sleep—just be mindful of reading good old fashioned hard copies instead of e-books, since the light from them can prevent your brain from entering relaxation mode.
What Reading Does to Our Mood and Mental Health
"As an avid reader, I am surely biased when I say there is nothing more delicious, indulgent, or satisfying than becoming lost in a good book," says Ramsden. "Page after page, soaking up spectacular writing bringing to life worlds unknown and characters misunderstood...much more is happening for us than sheer entertainment." She explains that getting lost in a good book provides a form of escapism for many and in doing that, the act of losing yourself in a book can help to lower cortisol levels—the primary stress hormone that can wreak havoc on our bodies when spiked.
Morrison agrees, saying that reading must be celebrated for its positive mental health impact. "Where so much of our free time is spent at the mercy of dopamine-inducing technology products and cliff-hanger reality TV, the opportunity to sit quietly, comfortably, and lose oneself in a book is a valuable mental balm," he says. "Our brains are simply exhausted by 2020s life. Developing the habit of reading—and reading well—can not only be enlightening, transporting, and inspiring, but can genuinely make our lives happier, more balanced, and more worth living."
It's during times of crisis that reading can be the quiet support we all need. Dr. Maite Ferrin, Consultant Psychiatrist at Re:Cognition Health makes the point that "in crisis, we all need some reassurance and something to hold on to—this is for our personal mental well-being."
Ferrin suggests that now is a good time to take a walk down memory lane. "Reading books from childhood serves as a reminder that things will get back to “normal” or the way we used to like them," he says.
What Reading Does for Relationships
Reading may be a solitary hobby, but it's one that can reap rewards when it comes to our relationships. "Reading fiction develops us emotionally," says Ramsden. "According to Keith Oatley at the University of Toronto, reading makes us think and feel in different ways. As we bond with the fictional characters, we are learning to better understand people both on the pages and off."
She references a team of researches led by Chun-Ting Hsu at the Free University of Berlin, who coined the term "fiction feeling hypothesis," describing how narratives with emotional content actually encourage readers to feel empathy, "activating a special neural network located in the anterior insula and mid-cingulate cortex regions of the brain."
Reading makes us think and feel in different ways. As we bond with the fictional characters, we are learning to better understand people both on the pages and off.
What Different Genres and Types of Books Do to the Brain
Getting lost in a book can have a powerful effect on us. "Reading can be a virtual experience for the brain, so the genre of books we choose to read can have a serious impact on our mood and emotions, giving different virtual experiences," says Dr. Dimitrios Paschos, consultant psychiatrist at Re:Cognition Health. "A book can evoke various emotions, such as happiness, relief, anger, and sadness."
Below, Paschos reveals how different genres and types of books can affect us—plus, we share some of our favorite book recommendations for each genre.
"Reading thrillers adds excitement and can help us step away from our own problems, making us realize that there are people in worse situations than ourselves."
Topping the charts on the best thriller of 2020 so far on GoodReads, this debut from Diana Urban has future Netflix series written all over it. The book description reads:
Already hooked, right?
"Literary books stimulate different parts of our brain and give them an intense workout."
"Happy books can be highly beneficial to mood and can be a good distraction when you're struggling with the complexities of life, giving hope and assurance that a 'happy ever after' can exist."
"Reading nostalgic books, such as those we read and enjoyed as young adults or teens can take us back to a happier period of our life. Because the book has already been read, there is an element of comfort, safety, and reassurance; you are familiar with the characters, the contents, and, of course, the ending, so uncertainty is eliminated.
Biographies and Autobiographies
"This genre can be hugely beneficial to the intellect as well as emotions. They are history lessons as told through the lives of extraordinary people, teaching us life lessons—the highs, lows, and failures. They can give us validation of our own successes and challenges, strength to face our failures, and the confidence to make self-improvements."
University of Rochester. Understanding the Teen Brain.
Watson EM. The Importance of Leisure Reading to Health Sciences Students: Results of a Survey. Health Info Libr J. 2016;33(1):33-48. doi:10.1111/hir.12129