Between urgent work e-mails, status updates, tweets, and magazines, you read all the time, right? But when was the last time you lost yourself in a book? The experience of becoming fully immersed in plot and character, “hearing” the words as you read, then carrying those words with you for a while—called “deep reading” by many literacy experts—offers benefits beyond the fun factor. When you’re engaged in this set of operations, your brain isn’t simply taking in surface information. “It’s connecting information to your own background knowledge and helping you form your own creative thoughts,” says Maryanne Wolf, a professor of child development and the director of the Tufts University Center for Reading and Language Research, in Medford, Massachusetts. Scientists have confirmed this with neuroimaging. For a 2009 study published in Psychological Science, 28 men and women read fiction while researchers used functional MRIs to track their brain activity. As participants reached different points in a plot, their brains reacted just as they would have had the events in the story been actually happening in their real lives. In other words, when you’re reading a novel or a narrative memoir with full attention, you don’t only understand the story, you experience it. And there’s no feeling quite like it.
Unfortunately, says Wolf, who is also the author of Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain ($16, amazon.com), this critical form of engagement may be on the decline, probably due to our digital habits. Wolf says that the way we read on screens—that is, scanning for key words or skimming until we hit the meat of a story—has bled into the way we read everything, including works of literature. As a result, we may not be getting as much out of reading for pleasure as we once did.
The Secret Benefits of Books
“Reading is a refuge. It stops you from multitasking and lets you become absorbed into another world,” says David Mikics, a professor of English at the University of Houston and the author of Slow Reading in a Hurried Age ($28, amazon.com). According to a 2010 study conducted by market research firm MindLab Intelligent Insights, reading an engrossing book to yourself for as little as six minutes reduces stress by 60 percent.
What’s more, the very act of reading literature can have a positive impact on the way you relate to people. Deep reading, it turns out, may strengthen our sense of empathy. “The network of brain regions activated during story comprehension are the same that help you understand what people are thinking and feeling,” says Raymond Mar, an associate professor of psychology at York University, in Toronto. In three separate studies (two on adults and one on young children), Mar found that the more fiction that people read, the better they are at empathizing with others. An October 2013 study by researchers at the New School for Social Research, in New York City, yielded similar findings: Reading literary fiction (Emily Brontë, Ann Patchett, Jonathan Franzen)—over popular fiction, nonfiction, or nothing at all—temporarily increases people’s ability to detect and understand the feelings of others.
Another perk (though this one isn’t exactly breaking news): Kids who read for pleasure excel academically—not only in language arts but, as recent research from the Institute of Education, in London, found, in math as well.