The Reading Mind: Surprising Science-Based Benefits of Reading Everyday

Humans are the only animals capable of reading, an invention that’s only been around for a few thousand years. That’s nowhere near enough time for our brains to have evolved dedicated circuitry for reading. And yet, somehow, specific brain areas are consistently associated with reading across different cultures.

This puzzle, known as the “reading paradox”, has fascinated scientists for a while. How do humans learn to read in such a way that the same brain regions are activated regardless of where we grow up, and despite the fact that reading is too modern to be the product of evolution? And what benefits can we get from regularly activating those parts of our brain by reading everyday?

The Reading Paradox

Cognitive neuroscientist Stanislas Dehaene proposed a solution to the reading paradox: the neuronal recycling hypothesis. The theory suggests that our brains can repurpose existing circuitry for new functions, allowing us to acquire new cognitive abilities like reading.

Rather than evolving entirely new brain circuits, reading likely piggybacks on systems that were originally designed for other purposes, such as brain regions that were initially devoted to recognizing visual patterns in nature.

For instance, the ability to distinguish between the shapes of different leaves or animals in nature may be repurposed to help us differentiate between letters such as b and d. Through exposure and practice, the brain’s existing circuitry is “recycled” for the task of reading text.

This means that reading is a natural activity for our brains. Our ancestors used to rely on their pattern recognition skills to read nature and now we use those same abilities to read text. And reading is actually great for our cognitive health and well-being.

Why you should read everyday

Because it actively engages your brain, reading is one of the healthiest hobbies for your mind. Not only is reading educational and informative, which is beneficial in itself, but it also rewires the connections in your brain, leading to many benefits.

  1. Stress reduction. Studies show that reading can help relax your body by lowering your heart rate and easing the tension in your muscles, with a reduction in stress of up to 68% in people when silently reading a literary work for only six minutes.
  2. Mental stimulation. Research suggests that reading can slow the progress of Alzheirmer’s disease and dementia by keeping your brain active and engaged, especially when reading out loud.
  3. Memory improvement. Reading has been shown to slow the rate of memory deterioration and even improve your memory and thinking skills.
  4. Vocabulary expansion. Reading is one of the best ways to learn new words. That’s why many researchers advocate for more reading experience in schools.
  5. Better focus. Researchers have found that, compared to using social media, reading helps improve concentration by increasing the capacity for longer attention spans.
  6. Improved brain connectivity. Studies have revealed that reading a narrative improves the connections inside the left temporal cortex of the brain—the area which is associated with language reception. The increased connectivity lasts for a few days after a reading session.
  7. Stronger analytical skills. When reading fiction, your brain takes notes of all of the details and gets into critical thinking mode to try to figure out what happens next, a practice that is useful not just when reading but in day-to-day life and work.

As playwright and novelist Somerset Maugham put it, “to acquire the habit of reading is to construct for yourself a refuge from almost all the miseries of life.” And yet… So many distractions, so many series to watch, so many podcasts to listen to. Finding the time or the motivation to read can be hard.

How to cultivate a reading habit

There are lots of other techniques to read more, but many rely on strong willpower or accountability, which may not be practical for everyone. Instead, here are three simple tips you can experiment with right away to make a habit of reading more:

  • Pick a book you will enjoy. If business books are not your thing, forget about trying to read that business book everyone is talking about at work. When it comes to reading, anything goes. Are you a fan of science-fiction? Short poems? History? And yes, even comics count. Fiction, non-fiction, poems, blogs, newspapers, magazines… Anything that captures your interest and your imagination will be better than a book you find boring.
  • Commit to reading one page every day. I’ve seen lots of advice recommending reading anywhere from five to ten pages a day, but that’s actually very hard to stick to. Instead, commit to reading one single page. Tell yourself you cannot go to sleep if you haven’t read that one daily page. If you feel like reading more, that’s great, but your only pact with yourself should be to read one page every single day.
  • Set a reading time and place. This could be just before going to sleep, while in your bed. Or on your way to work in the morning. Or on the way back from the gym. Shielding time and having a set place will help to build a habit. Then, make sure you don’t have any distractions and lose yourself in the book.

Reading can bring a lot of goodness to your brain and to your life. So next time you have a bit of free time, consider picking up a book instead of scrolling through videos on social media. And encourage your loved ones to read more—their brains will thank you.

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