Not so long ago, fiction was considered unhealthy and even dangerous. It’s true that reading in bed in the 18th century came with particular hazards, since candles were required for illumination at night, potentially disastrous if you fell asleep with a book. But it wasn’t just the fear of fire that inspired disapproval of reading.
Critics blamed reading for the inability to differentiate fiction from reality, stimulation of unhealthy sexual passions, and fomenting of revolutionary ideas. It wasn’t only adult novels under attack; children’s books were criticized particularly intensely as “protract[ing] the imbecility of childhood.” (On Novel Reading” The Guardian; or Youth’s Religious Instructor, 1820)
Things have changed in the last two centuries; school children fill out reading logs nightly to be sure they achieve a minimum of 30 minutes with a book, and, according to the Association of American Publishers, the book and journal publishing industry produced nearly $28 billion in revenue in 2015. The majority of book readers contributing to that revenue read fiction—87% as of a 2009 report by the National Endowment for the Arts, in which fiction reading was on the rise in the U.S. after 17 years of decline. Reading is now thought to be a good thing, not dangerous, and not just because of the invention of electricity.
But why is reading good for you? Reading entertains and educates, clearly. But there’s more than that. How does reading exert its beneficial effect? Here are five reasons to pick up a book, and ways to make reading a health-promoting activity, even in bed!
1. Reading is Good for Brain Development
In the early years of a child’s life, even before children can read themselves, listening to stories read out loud has a positive effect.
In a study using functional MRI (fMRI) to look at blood oxygen as a measure of activation of brain regions, 3-5 year-old children with more exposure to reading at home had higher activation of brain areas involved in understanding narratives and mental imagery.
The activation occurred in the left sided parieto-temporal-occipital association cortex, important for understanding the meaning of language. Activation of these regions is also thought to be important in emerging literacy; this is evidence that reading to children can in fact help them learn to read.
Reading has also been shown to improve vocabulary, knowledge, and verbal skills, and makes students more successful, with effects that persist into later life.
2. Reading Slows Cognitive Decline
Reading is not just good for kids’ brains. In a study from the Rush Memory and Aging Project, aging adults who reported more frequent participation in intellectual activities such as reading books and visiting libraries had slower decline in cognitive function including memory, visuospatial ability, and speed of mental processing.
These positive effects were seen with cognitive activities across the lifespan—both early life cognitive activity and late life activity had a positive impact on decline. This means that no matter how old you are, it’s not too late for the beneficial effects of reading.
3. Reading Improves Mental Health
The word bibliotherapy was first used by Dr. Samuel Crothers in 1916 to describe reading as a tool for healing, but the concept existed for centuries before that. The entrance to the library of King Ramses II of Egypt, who reigned from 1279–1213 BCE, was inscribed with the words “the house of healing for the soul”. Bibliotherapy is not just a piece of interesting historical trivia. In 2013, the National Health Service (NHS) in England made bibliotherapy a government-sanctioned treatment to improve mental health.
The NHS recommended self-help books, but the Reading Agency, through a program called Books on Prescription, recommended fiction and poetry. Does evidence hold up to support the claims of bibliotherapy? A recent review of 10 randomized clinical trials demonstrated its long-term beneficial effect on depression, though studies used self-help books, rather than fiction, as treatment.
Other research has found that fiction helps mental health too. A study of elderly volunteers listening to audiobooks demonstrated specific effects of fiction on psychiatric symptoms; benefits were seen for reducing psychosis, phobia, aggression, depression, anxiety, and obsessive-compulsive complaints.
Fiction appears to be specifically therapeutic in other settings; community-based literature reading groups help manage distress. And despite its sedentary nature, reading fiction can be seen as an “active” occupation which may be beneficial during sick leave to support return to ordinary life.
4. Reading Fosters Empathy and Social Function
A Google search performed on “empathy and fiction” on December 22nd, 2017 produced almost 45 million results. Seventeen years ago, Hakemulder published the first demonstration of the social effects of reading fiction, distinct from the effect of non-fiction on the same subject.
Readers of a novel about an Algerian woman were more likely to challenge male-female roles in Algeria than those reading a non-fictional essay. Since then, the study of fiction’s influence on social understanding and behavior has blossomed. In the words of Keith Oatley, whose fascinating (non-fiction) review on this topic is great reading in itself, “fiction might be the mind’s flight simulator…If fiction is the simulation of social worlds then, similar to people who improve their flying skills in a flight simulator, those who read fiction might improve their social skills.” In the past 17 years, studies have piled on with support of this hypothesis, and help explain why.
In a groundbreaking paper in Science, Kidd and Castano presented a series of experiments showing that reading literary fiction improves “theory of mind” (ToM), defined as the ability to identify and understand other peoples’ mental and emotional states.
ToM is crucial to successful social relationships and is thought to be one factor that supports empathy, and thereby helps foster and sustain interactions with others. Deficient ToM has been implicated in disorders with impaired social function, such as autism and schizophrenia.
Kidd and Castano hypothesized that literary fiction would “engage the psychological processes needed to gain access to characters’ subjective experiences.” Literary fiction was defined as works recognized with prestigious literary prizes (such as the National Book Award). Tests of ToM included the Reading the Mind in the Eyes Test (RMET), in which participants are asked to identify facially expressed emotions from an image of only a person’s eyes.
The authors assigned participants to read an assigned short passage of either literary fiction or non-fiction. Reading literary fiction improved ToM scores more than reading non-fiction, indicating a higher level of empathy for the literary fiction readers. This finding, although not replicated by all researchers who have undertaken similar studies (for example ), has been supported by many others.
In 2016, Pina and Mazza showed, using a battery of different tests, that after reading literary fiction, mentalizing, the ability to understand what others are thinking or feeling, improved significantly.
The authors stress the implications of their findings, including the possibility of using literary fiction for rehabilitation in autism spectrum disorders and schizophrenia, conditions in which difficulties with mentalizing are central.
How does reading fiction actually improve empathy? One mechanism is through “emotional transportation”. When people read fiction, they become transported into the world of the story— in other words, “lost in a book” (Nell V 1988 New Haven Yale U Press. Lost in a Book: the Psychology of Reading for Pleasure). In 2013, Bal and Veltkamp studied the role of emotional transportation in the effects on empathy of reading fiction.
They found that empathy improved a week after reading the first half of a Sherlock Holmes story called “The Adventure of the Six Napoleons” by Arthur Conan Doyle, but only if the readers reported being emotionally transported by the story. In fact, if they weren’t transported, empathy scores decreased, suggesting that disengagement from literature could be detrimental to empathy.
One of the most entertaining (and useful) studies examining response to immersive reading found that while reading text passages from the Harry Potter series, readers undergoing functional MRI had increase in blood flow to the mid-cingulate cortex, a core structure of pain and emotional empathy.
This increase in blood flow occurred particularly when readers reported being immersed in the story, specifically during fear-inducing passages. Kudos to JK Rowling, who not only created a beloved series of wonderful books, but also may have increased blood flow to millions of kids’ and adults’ cingulate cortices, adding a needed dose of empathy to the world.
5. Reading Improves Longevity
It’s encouraging that reading improves cognition, mental health, and empathy. But you might be surprised to know that it actually makes you live longer.
In 2016, Dr. Becca Levy and colleagues showed that reading books improved survival. Compared to non-book readers, those who read books for an average of 30 minutes a day had a 20% reduction in the risk of dying during the following 12 years.
This survival advantage was significantly greater in those reading books (most of which are fiction, as we know from the NEA 2009 report), than those reading newspapers or magazines. In the words of Dr. Levy, “the benefits of reading books include a longer life in which to read them.”
Reading, particularly reading fiction is good for you: it has positive effects on childhood development, slows cognitive decline in the elderly, improves mental health, and fosters empathy. And if 30 minutes of reading a book helps you live longer, what are you waiting for? Get reading!
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