I have a confession to make. I’m an addict. A book addict. 

When I was in elementary school, I went to our local library every week. One day the librarian said to me: “Congratulations! You are our reader of the year!” I was surprised since I didn’t remember participating in any contest. “You are the person who rented most books this year”. 

I sure wasn’t competing with anyone. At that time, I read about 30 books per week. For pleasure. 

I asked my mother if she possibly had a picture that showed me reading when I was a kid and you can see the result here. It would probably be hard to find a picture where I am NOT reading a book. 

I was obsessed. And I still am. Up to this day, I never leave the house without a book. 

The topic of “The Reading Brain” speaks to me on so many levels. I love reading. I’m a neuroscientist. And I used to study in the laboratory what happens in our brain as we read. 

In one study they compared children at age five. The ones that have been “well read” by their parents scored higher on verbal IQ tests, regardless of socioeconomic background. 

Reading makes children smarter. But you are all grown-ups. Let’s look at three recent experiments that show how reading improves your brain. 


How does reading improve your brain? 

1.    Do you know the story of Pompeii? In this study, researchers asked people to read a suspenseful story about the eruption of the volcano Vesuvius for nine consecutive days, and measured brain activity before and after. What did they find? By the end of the nine days, the participants had more resting-state-connectivity in certain areas of the brain responsible for “semantic embodiment”. What does this tell us? Resting state connectivity is an indication of which areas in the brain form functional networks when we do nothing special at all. In a nutshell, reading makes us smarter and makes our brain more connected, even when we do nothing special at all. 

2.    The second study looked at the impact on the brain when people read all kinds of books. What they found was that reading improved theory of mind, the capacity to view the world from someone else’s perspective, which is a form of empathy. This was only true for fiction though. In a nutshell, reading fiction enhances empathy!

3.    The third study looked at cognitive abilities in people who read a lot versus people who did not read much across all ages. What they found was that people who frequently read for pleasure had a younger brain. Reading keeps your brain young! It has neuroprotective functions. 

In a nutshell: Reading makes us smarter, more empathetic and it prevents dementia. 

The love for book starts at an early age. I was lucky to have an older sister who loved reading to me and who even taught me how to read before I started school. I think she intuitively understood what writer of children's fiction Kate DiCamillo famously said: "Reading should not be presented to children as a chore or a duty. It should be offered to them as a precious gift."

 

Resources: 

1. Reading makes you smarter: Berns GS, et al. 2013
2. Reading makes you more empathetic: Kidd& Castano 2013
3. Reading keeps your brain young: Wilson RS et al. 2013