Unlike cheese boards or sunbathing, reading is one of the few life pleasures that comes with actual health benefits. Neurological researchers have spent years studying the impact of books on the brain. They’ve identified a compelling link between the act of chomping through a novel and enhanced cognitive ability. Reading, it transpires, has a profound effect on mental agility, the memory and our aptitude for imagination and compassion. It can also help to alleviate stress and aid sleep. Of course, these effects may vary according to whether you’re reading on a Kindle or from an actual book. In the meantime, book-lovers, rest assured that the next time you lose two days of your life in the pages of Gone Girl, or some other addictive best-seller, you could also be providing yourself with the following remedies:

It reduces stress

Reading-reduces-stressReading for just six minutes can be enough to reduce stress levels by up to 68%, according to a 2009 study from the University of Sussex.

Researchers found that reading silently to oneself works to slow down the heart rate and ease tension in the muscles. And it does this more effectively than other traditionally “relaxing” activities such as listening to music or having a cup of tea. By losing yourself in a thoroughly engrossing book you can escape from the worries and stresses of the everyday world and spend a while exploring the domain of the author’s imagination.

It refines brain function

Books help Brain Function

A study published in a 2014 of the journal Brain Connectivity found that reading fiction improves the reader’s ability to put themselves in another person’s shoes and flex the imagination. And this, in turn, improves theory of mind. Scientists in the study found that reading novels caused changes in the left temporal cortex, an area of the brain associated with language comprehension and a phenomenon known as “embodied cognition”. This function allows neurons to trick the mind into thinking it’s doing something that it is not.

The researchers concluded from this that “the act of reading puts the reader in the body of the protagonist”. It’s likely that this expands a person’s emotional intelligence and ability to be compassionate. At a minimum, we can say that reading stories – especially those with strong narrative arcs – reconfigures brain networks for at least a few days. It shows how stories can stay with us. This may have profound implications for children and the role of reading in shaping their brains.

It helps your memory

Books-helps-memoryIn her landmark paper “What Reading Does For The Mind”, Berkeley-based development psychologist Dr. Anne Cunningham looks at the cognitive consequences of being an avid reader. She concludes that reading is a learned “coding” process and once you reach a certain level of reading ability, its benefits become reciprocal. Reading helps your brain to retain information over time, which in turn means you read better, which goes full circle to make you sharper and smarter. “Reading is a very rich and complex and cognitive act,” she says.

Connected to this is the impact of reading on memory. Every time you read, you create a new memory. So the process of reading will flex your memory reflexes over time.

It enhances mental agility in old age

Books-enhances-mental-agilityKeeping mentally active by reading books or writing letters helps protect the brain in old age, according to research published in a 2013 edition of the journal Neurology. The study from the Rush University Medical Center in Chicago measured memory and thinking in over 200 participants aged over 55, every year for about six years until their deaths. The same volunteers answered a questionnaire about whether they read books, wrote letters and took part in other activities linked to mental stimulation during childhood, adolescence, middle age, and in later life. After death, their brains were examined for evidence of the physical signs of dementia, such as brain lesions and plaques.

My boys Alexander and Leonardo reading. A rare and beautiful sight to see.
Book smart; the unexpected health benefits of being an avid reader