The Health Benefits of Reading

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“Ever since I turned 50, reading has become horribly similar to filling a bath with the plug out,” actor Hugh Laurie recently tweeted. For many of us, this rings true; our ability to retain information is just not as strong as it used to be. However, the benefits of copious reading for keeping the aging brain agile are well known. It has been shown that older adults who are dedicated readers tend to have sharper minds and perhaps even stave off the onset and progression of Alzheimer’s disease.

However, the positive results gained by reading fiction, as opposed to non-fiction, articles, and the news, are just now being explored. More and more, researchers are making comparative studies to see the effects of reading fictional books on the mind, and, right from the start, the emotional compensation seems to be fairly in evidence. A UK study conducted in 2015 showed that those who read for pleasure experience fewer feelings of stress and depression than non-readers. Reading fiction also seems to help people sleep better and have a stronger sense of relaxation. Yet the benefits carry even further. Those who read novels, researchers claim, have higher levels of self-esteem and a greater ability to cope with difficult situations.

More scrutiny into the kinds of books we read—meaning what we might call “pulp fiction” versus literature—has led to somewhat more controversial theories. Although not yet fully supportable by a large set of scientific data, recent examination of the effects of literature on the minds of readers has led some to conclude that the fast-paced, popular novels that often make the best-seller list today are not as beneficial as works that are deemed “high” literature. While this is a slippery slope, leading into questions about what exactly constitutes “high art,” the working notion is that literature puts more responsibility on the reader for its interpretation. The stories told often leave the motivations and actions of characters vague or unexplained, so that it is hypothetically possible that every reader will have a unique experience of the story. In other words, the popular mystery novel is a roller coaster but the tracks are laid out and everyone gets the same ride. Literature, by contrast, provides landscapes of human interaction and emotions that can often be difficult to navigate, but the rewards in terms of critical thought and engagement with human issues are higher.

The potential social implications for readers of literature are huge. Some researchers assert that because of the complexities found in literature, reading it allows us to understand each other better. Readers of literature feel closer to their friends and to their community, have a greater understanding of and empathy toward others, and a stronger awareness of social issues and of cultural diversity.

Moreover, as a recent study suggests, those who read literature possess a greater ability to discern the emotions, motivations, and thoughts of others. In order to counter the argument that those who profess themselves enthusiastic readers of literature just happen to demonstrate greater emotional intuition and empathy, researchers designed a study that gave one study group pages from literature to read for 15 minutes a day, and gave another group pages from the category of popular fiction to read for 15 minutes a day. After two weeks, each participant was presented with a series of pictures of faces and asked to identify the emotions expressed. Both groups did better at correctly determining the emotional states of the people in the photos than the control group, the participants who read nothing at all. However, the group that read literature did significantly better than the group that read popular fiction.

Some have argued that such immersive reading, which makes us empathetic to fictional characters, does not necessarily translate into real life empathy for our fellow humans. True bibliophiles can certainly be reclusive hermits rather than community activists, as we all can easily picture the kind of person who enjoys literature but is awkward or unpleasant in social situations. A better understanding of human nature, then, does not necessarily make us more altruistic or compassionate toward each other. More studies are needed to describe the connection between reading novels and how it alters the chemical or organic make-up of the brain, as well as how such changes impact our actions.

At the same time, there is a growing interest in what is called “bibliotherapy,” which is based on the idea of using books—especially fictional literature, though also including poetry, self-help books, and non-fiction—as a means to navigate periods of turmoil, or to help with larger issues, such as grief and mourning. The method involves seeking the help of a bibliotherapist who prescribes a list of books. Advocates claim such rigorous reading and contemplation of the complexities of humanity, even if in fictional situations (or perhaps because of the fiction), can be transformative. For those who do not have access to a bibliotherapist, there is a growing list of resources available, where topics both mundane and transcendent are described and provide relevant literary titles (see, for example, Ella Berthoud and Susan Elderkin’s The Novel Cure: An A–Z of Literary Remedies).

Though serious examination of self may not be one’s preoccupation in retirement where focus on enjoying the golden age of our lives often takes precedent (many of us do not wish to return to lessons already hard-learned), it is worth considering what literature might offer in terms of expanding the mind. Consulting such a list as recommended above could steer older adults into topics that are more relevant, or perhaps offer new ideas to explore. As a social activity, a reading group dedicated to loftier works of prose holds the potential of being very satisfying, as it provides opportunity to interpret both universal and individual human issues as well as the chance to share complex ideas with a peer group.

Such discussions might also help with what Hugh Laurie lamented. Stories are more likely to stick with us through the process of active thinking and discussion about them. Hearing other peoples’ interpretations might offer insights we would have never thought of before. Indeed, we are never too old to engage with characters and stories that challenge us, and perhaps shift our viewpoints, as well.