It’s been tough keeping fit during the last Covid-restricted year. How refreshing to know that reading- especially fiction – is increasingly being proven as good for your health.

I reckon we’ve always thought that the benefits of reading last a lifetime. Beginning with the parental bond of bedtime stories, books attract by offering knowledge, escape and entertainment. But it is only in recent decades that scientist have been able to measure the true health advantages s to be had from reading – especially novels.

Some authorities have likened reading to adding to the ‘muscle’ of memory or as being ‘vitamins’ for the brain. Reading a book takes more concentration than watching TV or internet browsing. It makes us use our imagination, not just passively absorb sound and picture. MRI scan studies (e.g., by Berns) have shown reading a novel makes the brain light up with neural connectivity in the somatosensory cortex and increasingly so as tension rises in a plot –as the reader places themselves in the shoes of a protagonist (a process now grandly called ‘embodied semantics.’). We learn how characters surmount difficulties, extrapolate what we read into our lives, and learn to better understand the world around us. Regular readers have been shown to have greater vocabulary and communication skills, all essential in today’s workplace- and a good job also improves your health.

Physically, reading has been clinically shown to reduce blood pressure, ease tensions in stressed muscles and alleviate stress. ’Losing yourself in a book’ is a great analogy – tune out of the difficult world and tune in to a good book. Reading is proving to be the ultimate relaxation. One University of Sussex study showed even reading fiction 6 minutes a day reduced physical parameters of stress in students by as much as 68%!

You may study textbooks to acquire information and earn a degree, but reading novels offers more – perking up your brain, social skills, psyche, and personality. Researchers believe the first oral story tellers were instrumental in spreading information for survival, social cooperation, and dissemination of social norms, initially of course in religious texts. The first known long narrative written, The Epic of Gilgamesh from ancient Sumeria, had its journeys, adversities, floods, monsters, and sexual encounters disseminated throughout ancient literature in the Odyssey, Bible, and Arabian Nights. The world’s first novel is accredited to Japan’s Murasaki Shikibu; a story of courtly seduction in the eleventh century. Romance was ever a popular topic for humans!

So how does reading help the brain? Growing evidence suggests it can slow brain ageing. Regular readers are 2.5 times less likely to get Alzheimer’s, probably as it challenges the brain to learn new things, keeps information processing circuits stay in shape and makes neural circuits more adaptable/plastic.  It calls your intelligence to action.

But perhaps most importantly of all, reading fiction boosts your social skills. Readers can empathise with a character and learn from their experience- it has been shown to improve social skills and boost self confidence in the young, and even to improve empathy and change prejudice by illuminating ‘other’ points of view which leads to better understanding of cultural differences.

There are even studies showing reading can change the way we perceive our own personality traits, and that it can Improve depression and sleep patterns (Mayo Clinic). Print books for the latter though- not stimulating screen-lit electronic devices.

It seems there are no downsides to reading fiction- apart from finding books which grab you. I love the study estimating people who read more than 3 and a half hours a week were 23% more likely to live longer than those who did not read at all. And it’s fun. But we must not dismiss non-fiction. Self-help books and schemes such has the UK National Health Service Reading Well Scheme offer lists of books to help cope with physical and mental health issues. Book shops and libraries are closing, but it may be that we need them as much as pharmacies and health centres. Rameses II knew as much. His library in ancient Thebes had an inscription over the door: ‘House of Healing for the Soul.’

Br J Gen Pract. 2020 Feb; 70(691): 79.

Berns GS, Blaine K, Prietula MJ, Pye BE. Short- and long-term effects of a novel on connectivity in the brain. Brain Connect. 2013;3(6):590–600

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