Do you read for pleasure? I’m guessing that you’ve just said yes, but only 63% of adults and 25% of children read for pure enjoyment. Not to check the news, keep up with social media or complete homework – just for fun.
Oh, and this reading needs to involve a book, not a screen. The benefits are huge. Want to know why?
Increased Academic Performance
Let’s start at the beginning, with children. Recent research shows that reading consistently from a young age boosts academic performance, with enhanced ability in verbal learning, memory and speech development. The study, produced by the universities of Cambridge and Warwick in the UK and Fudan University in China, analysed data from more than 10 000 children. Results indicate that children who spend more time reading for pleasure have increased development in areas including the hippocampus and frontal regions. These parts of the brain are responsible for learning, memory and problem solving.
Reading also greatly boosts fluid intelligence – the ability to think creatively and solve complex problems. With 93% of children in the UK worried about school, it’s clear that reading for pleasure from a young age brings huge academic advantages that may well ease this anxiety.
But reading isn’t only great for the young…
Strengthened Memory for Life
Reading for pleasure preserves memory skills as we age. In 2022, researchers at the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology conducted a study of adults aged between 60 and 70. Those who read for 90 minutes per day demonstrated significantly stronger memory and sentence-processing skills than those who were given puzzle-solving activities. This outcome is supported by findings from the American Academy of Neurology, who have concluded that mentally stimulating activities (such as reading) can delay the onset of Alzheimer’s by up to five years.
Want to stay sharp into your later years? Read, read, read!
Improved Mental Health
So, reading for pleasure can help delay dementia.
But, that’s not all. Reading improves your entire mental health. It boosts wellbeing and positivity, while reducing stress and anxiety.
‘It’s the ultimate form of relaxation,’ explains cognitive neuropsychologist Dr David Lewis-Hodgson, chairman of Mindlab. His study for the University of Sussex showed that after only six minutes of reading a book, subjects’ stress levels and heart rates were reduced by 68%. Reading is far more effective than other relaxing activities such as listening to music (stress levels reduced by 61%), or taking a walk (stress levels reduced by 42%).
In fact, reading is so beneficial to health, it’s increasingly used to treat mood disorders such as depression. Bibliotherapy involves reading specific pieces of literature and talking about them with a therapist (or in a group therapy setting). It can help patients understand perspectives other than their own, alleviate distress and bring feelings of hope and contentment.
But how does reading do all of this?
Reading Makes Us Human
We are unique as a species, but not for the reasons you might first think of. Some would suggest that humans are unique because we have big brains, use tools, even wear clothes. But these suggestions are wrong…
Sperm whales have brains six times larger than ours. The animals with the largest brains in comparison to body size are tree shrews. Not humans.
Many animals use tools – chimps, sea otters, dolphins, crows, rodents…
Other animals dress themselves up, too. Decorator crabs stick seaweed, sponges, anemones, corals, and other things to their backs. And how about the assassin bug? It hunts ants, kills them, sucks out their insides and then, wait for it… wears their dead bodies on its back.
What truly makes us unique is our need to connect with each other.
As Thomas Suddendorf, an evolutionary psychologist at the University of Queensland in Australia, explains, ‘We have a fundamental urge to link our minds together.’
And is there a more powerful way to link minds, than through reading? Books connect us, help us understand each other, empathise more strongly. Make us more human.
Life brings challenges. It always has, and always will. These challenges are varied – work, family life, social circles can all generate difficulties. But the wider world really challenges us. Just look at the past decade…
There is an unprecedented cost of living crisis.
So how can reading help us with this sea of troubles? It strengthens our imaginations. This gives us two key options – we can escape, and we can adapt.
Reading opens doors to other worlds. All we need to do to escape our troubles, is walk through. Our imaginations allow us to suddenly be someone else, somewhere else… Okonkwo, struggling to be a lord in the complex world of 1890s Nigeria. Katniss Everdeen, desperately trying to survive the brutal Hunger Games. Frodo Baggins, using the last shreds of his strength and courage to destroy the Ring.
Imagination allows us to dream, to create, to innovate. It makes the unreal, real. It lets us live beyond our boundaries. To feel. To explore. To escape.
But imagination also allows us to respond to challenges. To problem solve. To create solutions. To make the world a better place.
It’s no coincidence that the biggest companies look for imagination in their employees. Apple and Microsoft both value creativity and curiosity. Google looks for people who can solve problems without an obvious answer. Imagination enables us to look forwards, to shape the future. As Albert Einstein explained, ‘Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand.’
It’s no surprise that reading books helps us to learn.
It’s equally obvious that nonfiction books are filled with facts and knowledge. Apparently, the best-selling nonfiction book of all time is Think and Grow Rich by Napolean Hill. He lists 13 steps to financial success, distilling 25 years of research into a single, motivational guide. Hill writes about self-belief, desire, resilience, avoiding negativity and leadership. His book has sold over 100 million copies since being first published in 1937. It seems very likely that you will learn something if you read it, even if it doesn’t make you rich.
But what about fiction? Does that help us learn? Let’s think about another best seller.
Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone has sold over 120 million copies – the whole series has sold more than 600 million and been translated into 85 languages. Woven through the complex plot, which unfolds spectacularly over seven novels, are lessons for us all.
Clearly, the books are about friendship, courage, resilience, love. But there’s much more to be found in JK Rowling’s words.
What to learn some basic Latin? The names of the spells – lumos, nox, accio, obliviate, expelliarmus, the unforgivable curses crucio and imperio, all have their roots in Latin. (Avada Kedavra is taken from ancient Aramaic.)
How about mythology? Let’s look at some characters…
Argus (Filtch – Hogwarts’ caretaker) comes from Greek mythology. Argus was a giant with 100 eyes (Filtch is always watching the pupils – get it?) who ended up being killed by Hermes, the messenger god.
Oh, Hermes is also the name of Percy Weasley’s owl – a messenger, you see.
And, the female form of Hermes is, you guessed it, Hermione. Yes, there’s also a Hermione in Greek mythology. She was the daughter of Helen, who sparked the Trojan War. The city of Troy refused to give Helen up to the invading Greeks, just as Hogwarts refuses to give Harry to Voldemort.
Probably everyone gets the link Fluffy/Cerberus link – both three-headed guard dogs – but there’s a lot more deliberate mythology. Inferi (the name for Voldemort’s reanimated dead) is used by the ancient Romans to describe the inhabitants of hell. Ronan the centaur talks repeatedly about the planet Mars – also the name of the Roman god of war. Even in the first book, JK Rowling is preparing us for the battle in book seven. And the beloved Remus Lupin? Remus (and his brother Romulus) were the founders of Rome – both were raised by a wolf (Lupus in Latin.) So, who was surprised when Remus’ secret was revealed? No-one who’d been paying attention!
The Harry Potter books also teach us about other stories. The often used colour of emerald, references The Wizard of Oz. The tale of the Three Brothers and the Deathly Hallows clearly echoes The Pardoner’s Tale. Voldermort’s obsession with the prophecy references Macbeth’s fixation with the words of the witches. And Harry’s death, visit to King’s Cross, and resurrection? Who does that remind you of?
The Harry Potter books also feature moving accounts of loss and despair. The deaths of much loved characters, the emotional distress of Snape, the complicated development of Dumbledore, all help us to understand the complexities of life and death.
As clinical psychologist Dr Janina Scarlet explains, ‘Sometimes, we need to understand grief on a deeper level in order to process it better. This is where therapy can help. Connecting with fictional characters who have also experienced loss, can help us better understand our own feelings and can potentially help us build a foundation for recovery.’
Dr Heather L. Servaty-Seib agrees, ‘Lessons about grieving can be learned from Harry himself. Thoughts of his parents bring happiness for Harry, but he also expresses feelings of yearning, sadness, guilt, remorse and anger as he grieves. These feelings reinforce that grieving is natural. His grief also unfolds and shifts as he develops just as it does for most grieving children. Harry’s experience is real and in line with scholarship on the experience of bereaved children.’
The fictional worlds of stories teach us so much about our own.
And, we love stories…
The Power of Stories
Humans have always loved stories. We shared them around our earliest campfires. We painted them onto cave walls. Eventually, we wrote them down. Made them into poems, books, songs, films…
But why do stories have such an impact on us? Well, they help us express our emotions, beliefs, dreams, nightmares. They challenge us. They make us think. Make us question.
Some stories force us to cower back, to hold on to the security of the way things are… Think of folk tales like Red Riding Hood – warning us of danger, tempting us to explore, then… Boom! ‘Stay on the path! Do as you’re told! Don’t change things!’ Or you’ll be eaten.
But the best stories? They show us where we are, connect us and help us reach higher.
Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin – haunting us with the evils of slavery and making us desperate for equality.
Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front – confronting us with the horror of war and urging us to stop fighting.
Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale – terrifying us with oppression whilst giving glimpses of hope through solidarity.
The list could go on and on. The point is…
The best stories give us hope. Their words raise us up. Make us want to be better. They save us.
And what better reason do you need to read?
Choose a Book!
One last point.
Remember the introduction to this article? Reading needs to involve a book, not a screen.
Research shows that reading from a book increases engagement with the text, deepens relaxation and boosts understanding. Reading from a screen causes overactivity in the brain and reduced comprehension. Further studies suggest that simply having a mobile within reach distracts us, limits our concentration and leads to poorer performance.
Need more reasons to choose paper over technology? How about a good night’s sleep? The blue light from your screen causes issues with your melatonin levels and circadian cycles, making it harder for you to fall asleep and making you feel groggier when you wake up.
Or the fact that 92% of people prefer a paper book to a screen? Explanations for this are varied. Some people enjoy the digital detox after a day spent looking at screens. Or the eco-friendly nature of books, which can be read and then shared with others. For some, the cover artwork, the feel and smell of the paper and the physical weight of a book all enhance the reading experience. Many people love the history of ownership – the beaten up copy of Animal Farm that they studied at high school, the dog-eared and yellowy Hobbit passed on from parents, the beloved, battered Faraway Tree which they cherished during childhood.
Anyway, let’s conclude…
Reading boosts our academic performance, strengthens our memory, improves our mental health, makes us human, develops our imagination, helps us learn, inspires us…
It’s truly awesome.
So, go and read a book. Do it now.
Just make sure it’s a paper one.