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.
Looking at mentally stimulating activities throughout subjects' lifetimes, he found the rate of cognitive decline was reduced by about a third in people with frequent mental activity, compared with the average. And in those with infrequent activity, the decline was nearly 50% faster than average. “So the more you read, the better,” says Wilson.
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.
“The brain is an activity-dependent organ, and what you do with it during life affects how it develops. Almost everyone by the age of 80 has got a few of these pathologies going on in their brain. It’s a question of how well it is prepared for the onslaught.”
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.
Also, the fact that it is fiction is significant. Tests using either Anton Chekhov’s short story The Lady with the Dog or a non-fictionalised form of it that was still engaging but not artistic found shifts in the personalities of those who read the original. Interestingly, each changed in a different way.
“Almost all human cultures create stories that, until now, have been rather dismissively called ‘entertainment’,” says Oatley. “I think there is also something more important going on.”
This article was first published in the September 9, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.