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The Benefits of Reading for the Brain

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If you love reading, you won’t need us to tell you how beneficial curling up with a book can be, but studies have shown that picking up a novel has health effects that extend beyond the immediate de-stressing and pleasure it brings.

Reading fires up your brain

Researchers at Liverpool University revealed that reading Wordsworth, Shakespeare and other classics “lights up” the brain under scanners. However, when participants were given easier, modern translations of the books, the brain boosting effects were less, suggesting that reading trickier texts is better for you. Areas of the brain fired up included not only the left part of the brain concerned with language, but also the right hemisphere that relates to autobiographical memory and emotion.

Effects are enduring. A study at Emory University in the US found that reading a book causes heightened connectivity in the brain and neurological changes that persist even after you’ve stopped reading.

Reading can slow the progress of Alzheimer’s

Reading can lower the levels of a brain protein involved in Alzheimer's, researchers have claimed. US scientists looked at beta amyloid protein levels in 65 healthy older people and compared the results with Alzheimer's patients. They found lower levels of amyloid in the brains of people who had read, written, played games, or taken part in other cognitively stimulating activities throughout their lives.

Lead researcher Susan Landau, of the University of California, Berkeley, said: “We report a direct association, suggesting that lifestyle factors found in individuals with high cognitive engagement may prevent or slow deposition of beta amyloid, perhaps influencing the onset and progression of Alzheimer's disease.”

Reading slows mental decline in general

People who read books are more likely to have healthy brains in old age, according to research published in the journal, Neurology. The study looked at 294 elderly participants and found that those who had taken part in mentally stimulating activities – such as reading – had lower rates of mental decline as they got older. Conversely, those who rarely read or performed other stimulating mental activity mentally declined 48 percent faster than average.

"Our study suggests that exercising your brain by taking part in activities such as these across a person's lifetime, from childhood through old age, is important for brain health in old age," said study author Robert. S. Wilson of the Rush University Medical Center, Chicago.

Reading can help in memory improvement and enhancement

Scientists at Liverpool University found that reading poetry stimulates activity in the brain area associated with autobiographical memory. There’s a lot to remember when you read – plot, sub-plots, characters, emotions, your own evaluation of what’s going on – and all of this effectively gives your brain a “work-out”.

Reading can help improve concentration

For many of us, life is frenetic and we spend our days juggling a million jobs. If you regularly find yourself chatting online at the same time as speaking on the phone, trying to get work done and dealing with family demands then you’re not alone. However, this type of frantic multitasking has been shown to lower productivity, meaning you get less done in the long-run. The discipline of focusing for prolonged periods on reading a book is good for your powers of concentration and can have a far-reaching effect on your life.

Reading can help to relieve stress

If you’re stressed, reading is one of the most effective, enjoyable ways of making yourself feel better. Part of this is common sense; getting lost in a book will take you away from your worries for a while, giving you new perspective when you return. However, research has found that reading lowers stress faster than other activities such as walking or listening to music. Research from the University of Sussex found that subjects only needed to read for six minutes to slow down their heart rate and ease tension in the muscles.

Reading may help dealing with depression

Several studies have suggested that reading can help with mood disorders such as depression. A study published in the journal PLOS ONE showed that reading self-help books, alongside therapeutic support sessions, lowered depression more effectively than traditional treatments alone. Even in severe cases, reading the right kind of book can improve your mental health. According to a study at the University of Manchester, people with severe depression can also benefit from "low-intensity interventions," such as self-help books.

Reading can help you sleep well

Most sleep expert suggest that insomniacs should create a calming bedtime routine, away from phone and computer screens which can stimulate brain activity with their lights (not to mention annoying posts from distant relatives). Reading a non-stressful book under a gentle light can be part of this routine, but choose your book wisely; anything too exciting may have the reverse effect.

Reading gives you better analytical skills

Reading is a complex process, involving several parts of the brain as you piece together and visually recreate what’s happening. This brain activity will stand you in good stead for becoming more widely analytical. Research at the University of Berkeley revealed that readers are able to spot patterns more quickly, a key tenet of good analytical thinking.

Reading can make you score higher on tests of empathy

Reading fiction makes you a nicer person. There, we’ve said it, and research will back us up. A team at the University of Toronto found that the more fiction a participant had read, the higher they scored on measures of social awareness and tests of empathy, such as being able to take another person’s perspective or being able to accurately read emotions from looking at someone’s eyes. On the other hand, people who regularly read non-fiction were found to display the opposite characteristics, making them less empathic.

Reading can make you smarter

Canada’s Keith E. Stanovich, Emeritus Professor at the University of Toronto, is a world leader in the psychology of reading. Stanovich has carried out a vast amount of research into the topic and the conclusion of one meta-analysis reads: “If ‘smarter’ means having a larger vocabulary and more world knowledge in addition to the abstract reasoning skills

encompassed within the concept of intelligence, as it does in most laymen's definitions of intelligence, then reading may well make people smarter. Certainly our data demonstrate time and again that print exposure is associated with vocabulary, general knowledge, and verbal skills even after controlling for abstract reasoning abilities.”

Children benefit from being read to

Reading to children has long been known to be beneficial, ramping up language skills and generally boosting brain development. If you want some science with that, however, research from the Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center, using MRI scans to measure brain activity in children aged 3 to 5, revealed that the more often children were read to at home, the more brain activity they showed while listening to stories in the research lab. Children who were frequently read to showed particular difference in the brain region involved in semantic processing, or the ability to extract meaning from words.

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