Reading is pretty damned awesome. You know it, I know it. Regular readers see numerous personal benefits from their practice and “experts” back this up by hammering home the importance of reading in personal development, but there are plenty of people out there who don’t read regularly and wonder why we make such a fuss about the practice. It’s a valid question if one views reading as a similar activity to watching a movie or listening to music. The latter are great pursuits, don’t get me wrong, but reading offers some unique benefits that drive our minds in ways that few other media can touch.
So, why? Why does this happen, and what, exactly, are the benefits that a reader gets from his or her regular reading habit? I decided to cut through the anecdotal stories and get to the meat of the issue. I found these five benefits time and time again.
1. Reading Lowers Stress. The science is in on this one: reading lowers stress more effectively than listening to music, going for a walk, or having a cup of tea. Studies found that reading for just six minutes helped the reader to ease the tension in his or her muscles and cardiovascular system. The key seems to be the fact that your concentration is completely absorbed in the story being told, which draws consciousness away from the problems that are plaguing your mind. Music followed just behind reading, but it’s something to remember the next time that you feel you’re going crazy from stress.
2. Reading has a positive impact on social and emotional performance. A recent NEA study found that readers are more likely to become socially conscious and perform volunteer and charity work. Regular readers are also more likely to be able to understand an opposing point of view and attempt to bridge the gap between his or her own perspective and the perspective of the other person. This leads to improved social status and cooperation and an overall healthier emotional outlook.
3. Readers gain knowledge. This one seems the most obvious, but it’s not just about the knowledge that you gain in the book itself – study after study finds that reading enhances a reader’s ability to learn in all areas of his or her life. It sharpens mental acuity across the board and encourages the reader to look for hidden knowledge in her or his everyday life. Reading has also been found to increase your vocabulary more than talking or teaching, as it forces the reader to see new words in their proper context. I don’t need to tell you just how valuable an increased vocabulary is when it comes to writing. This is why it’s so crucial for writers to read.
4. Reading improves your memory and hones your attention span. The method by which we read inherently improves memory – as with the vocabulary words above, reading forces you to contextualize the concepts that the writer is communicating (how’s that for alliteration?). Often you have to hold a complex idea from earlier in the paper/story/novel in mind so that the payoff later in the novel makes more sense. The more books you read that require this kind of memory, the better your mind gets at holding those memories in place – and the better your memory gets in general. This helps to ward off the mental effects of aging.
5. Reading enhances your critical thinking and reasoning skills. Ever have a moment where a twist happens and your mind flashes back to something that happened earlier in the novel, providing a clue for that twist? You know that sensation that you get, the “ah-hah” moment? That’s more than just satisfaction, that’s activity ramping up in your brain, and it’s been shown time and time again to lead to more expansive modes of thinking. Reading fosters this by providing “artificial” moments that prime your mind’s analytical skills and help you to better spot patterns in your environment.