All modern human beings belong to a group known as homo sapiens, meaning “wise man” in Latin.
We chose this name for ourselves because of the extraordinary astuteness of our brain, or, to be more precise, our distinguished cognitive abilities. This is why mental health is crucial for our overall wellbeing, as it affects how we think, feel, and behave.
What’s even more remarkable about human beings is that our brain is plastic and regenerative. It’s known as neuroplasticity and neurogenesis. This means that regardless of your genetic predispositions, you can always improve your mental health and the cognitive functioning of the brain.
In fact, you had already begun improving it in childhood when you learned how to read!
Multiple scientific studies have shown that reading books brings lifetime benefits to both your physical and mental health.
On top of that, reading is easy, cheap, and time-tested.
Here are the most resounding benefits that reading can bring to your mental health, backed up by science.
1. Reading Strengthens Your Brain
In this study, researchers wanted to understand how stories get into your brain and what they do to it. They used functional MRI scans to measure the effect of reading a novel on the brain. The participants had been reading the novel “Pompeii” for 19 days. As tension built in the story, more and more areas lit up with activity in participants’ brains.
What’s more interesting is that the brain connectivity lasted for days after the experiment.
“The neural changes were not just immediate reactions”, says neuroscientist Gregory Berns, lead author of the study and the director of Emory’s Center for Neuropolicy. “Since they persisted the morning after the readings, and for the five days after the participants completed the novel.”
This study showed that reading a novel enhances the brain’s resting-state connectivity and overall function. The thing is that when you read fiction, you put yourself in another’s shoes using your imagination. It’s the mind-body connection that explains why visualization of a muscle memory does magic in sports.
Scientifically speaking, reading heightens connectivity between an area of your brain associated with receptivity for language and the primary sensory-motor region.
For example, just thinking about running activates the neurons associated with the act of running. And reading does just the same to your neurons.
Speaking of putting yourself in the character’s shoes as you read literary fiction, you develop your ability to understand other people’s feelings. This ability is called the “theory of mind,” which’s essential for building and cultivating social relationships.
Just like you can’t do it overnight, the more you read, the more developed your theory of mind gets.
2. Reading Keeps Your Brain Stimulated
Studies show that staying mentally stimulated can slow the progress and reduce the risks of Alzheimer’s and Dementia.
Moreover, you may be unknowingly contributing to your brain’s decline by not challenging it, and reading keeps your brain actively stimulated.
The National Institute on Aging recommends reading books and magazines as a way of keeping your mind engaged as you grow older.
These studies have shown that seniors who read and solve math problems every day maintain and improve their cognitive functioning. And the earlier you start, the better.
3. Reading Improves Memory
Not only does reading stimulate your brain, but it also serves as a neural workout. Neurobiologically speaking, reading turns out to be a very demanding activity.
When you read, the parts of your brain that are associated with vision, language, and associative are learning to work together in incoherence. By working out your neurons through reading, you actually protect memory from deterioration.
This study has shown that reading slows the rate of memory deterioration, heightens overall brain function, and even increases memory.
4. Reading Reduces Stress
According to a 2009 study, reading reduced stress levels by 68 percent, which was more than listening to music, playing video games, or going for a walk.
By reading for six minutes a day, you can reduce your muscle tension, lower blood pressure and slow your heart rate. In fact, researchers concluded that reading is as effective as yoga and humor when it comes to dealing with psychological distress.
While other activities can reduce your stress temporarily by distracting you from the worries of your everyday world, reading actively engages your imagination.
Study co-author Dr. David Lewis, a neuropsychologist at Mindlab International at Sussex, stated that reading stimulates your creativity and causes you to enter what is essentially an altered state of consciousness.
And since one of the most frequently cited reasons for high-stress levels is time constraints, reading can be easily incorporated into your busy schedule.
5. Reading Helps Alleviate Depression and Deepens Sleep
People who feel depressed often report feeling of isolation and even alienation from others. They turn to literature for comfort, that’s how reading fiction allows them to escape into the worlds of the imaginary characters.
According to a UK study, readers are 21 percent less likely to experience feelings of depression. Also, reading can help alleviate depression indirectly by improving your sleep.
You see, people with depression often find it difficult to fall asleep and stay asleep during the night. At the same time, poor sleep makes it even more difficult to fight depression, and may even provoke it in some people.
Multiple studies show that reading can regulate your sleep routine if you read a print book before you go to bed. Whether you experience feelings of depression or not, you can significantly improve your overall health and wellbeing by sleeping better.
And this is what reading a book can do for you.
6. Reading Improves Connectivity of the Brain
Neuroscientists discovered that reading ‘rewires’ areas of the brain responsible for both vision and spoken language and helps your brain process verbal and visual information more effectively. Researchers explain that even adults who learn to read late in life can experience increased functional connectivity with the visual cortex.
In other words, reading helps you filter and fine-tune the flood of visual information that calls for our attention in the modern world.
7. Reading Extends Your Life
A long-term health and retirement study with 3,635 adult participants conducted for a period of 12 years, found that readers lived about 2 years longer than those who either didn’t read or who read magazines and other forms of media.
Moreover, if you read more than 3.5 hours every week, you are 23 percent more likely to live longer than those who didn’t read at all. So the more you read, the longer you may live.
Apart from having these incredible benefits for your mental health, research shows that regular reading really makes you smarter as it increases your vocabulary and comprehension. Also, it makes you a better communicator as it increases your ability to empathize with other people.
The best part is that the effects of reading are cumulative, and it’s never too late to start benefiting from reading a good book.
And lastly, don’t just read on a digital device – read print books as well. Studies have shown that people who read print books remember more of what they read than people who read the same material in a digital form.
Making Reading a Habit
If reading can bring so many benefits to your physical and mental health, you want to make reading a habit. That’s how you’re going to join the group of elite performers. Leaders are readers, after all, and they tend to schedule reading into their schedules.
So go ahead and schedule your reading.