Aside from the pleasure it gives, reading staves off Alzheimer’s and helps make your personality shine.
Robert Wilson has been looking at the effects of reading on the human brain. His research is based on longitudinal studies in elderly people, measuring their memory and thinking, and it includes an examination of their brains after they have died.
“We discovered early on that those who read more are less likely to develop cognitive decline,” says Wilson, a professor of neurological sciences at Chicago’s Rush University.
Reading is an active pursuit that demands a variety of intellectual abilities and involves the working memory. “We don’t really go into whether they’re reading comic books or War and Peace, and there isn’t a lot of hard data on that, but I think the more challenging it is, the better,” says Wilson.
One of his most interesting findings is that 30-40% of people with no obvious memory or thinking problems at the time of their death turned out to have the plaques and tangles in their brains that are the hallmarks of Alzheimer’s disease. Wilson thinks that lifelong intellectual activity, and reading in particular, helped delay the disease expressing itself in these individuals.
His research is now focused on modifiable risks for cognitive decline. Factors such as suffering from depression and having a sense of purpose have been related to how well thinking power is maintained through later life.
“But reading and intellectual activity are a big factor,” he says. “We think reading is a prototype of things that are good for you. The research won’t yet tell you what sort of reading or how much. So what is important is doing intellectual activities you enjoy and can sustain.”
You don’t necessarily have to read for long spells to get some benefits. Researchers at the University of Sussex found that just six minutes can reduce stress levels by up to two-thirds. And a Yale University study found a relationship between reading and longevity in people over 50 – the key to living longer is to have your nose in a novel for more than three and a half hours a week.
There is also evidence that reading stories may improve your personality. Canadian research using brain imaging has revealed different brain activity and higher empathy in those who read fiction.
“Everyone assumes reading is good for you,” says Keith Oatley, an award-winning novelist and emeritus professor of cognitive psychology at the University of Toronto. “What we did was turn that into a question: if it’s good for you, then in what way? We started to find all these effects, including an increase in empathy.”
The more you read, the more you are able to understand others. Which genre you favour makes a difference: romance and detective novels are more effective than family sagas and sci-fi. Oatley says literary fiction, focused on the inner lives of its characters, is probably better than plot-driven novels. The important thing is having an emotional involvement with the story, using your imagination and putting yourself in a character’s shoes.