There’s nothing quite like a good book. Whatever your personal preference, be it intergalactic adventures, government conspiracies, or peril on the high seas, a book can teleport you to a place far more completely than just about any other form of media. Even virtual reality.
Video game franchises like the award winning Mass Effect or Halo series has had huge success putting you front and centre in your own galaxy spanning movie, your actions dictating the success or failure of the endeavour. Your skill will determine how rewarding your experience is. Your patience will dictate how fully you explore and understand the story you’re at the centre of.
Similarly, a movie is great and some of the recent spectaculars like The Martian or the recent Star Wars outing have taken storytelling to a new level. However a movie simple doesn’t engage your brain – no matter your personal view – as fully as a book.
There’s a very good reason for this: a book makes your brain work harder. There are four parts of your brain working right now to enable you to read and understand the words on the screen.
Your temporal lobe decodes information and understands the sounds words make when spoken.
The frontal lobe handles speech production, grammar and comprehension. It’s also the part of the brain that dictates how fast you can read. Think of it like leg muscles: the more you use them, the faster you get.
Finally the angular and supramarginal gyrus link the various parts of the brain together like the conductor of a bio-electric orchestra. What’s more, it’s all doing this faster than your conscious mind can process.
If you’re reading fiction then we can add in your visual cortex as well. This is the part of your mind that allows you to ‘visualise’ images inside your mind be it recalling a memory or reading something on a page.
This mental work out every time you pick up a book has a number of benefits.
1. Reading reduces stress
Because picking up a book disengages you from the world (yes the Kindle app counts), we allow the cognitive part our brain to rest and return to its peak functionality. It’s been proven to be 600% more relaxing than a video game and 300% more relaxing than walk.
Reading a good book puts our brains into a state not unlike meditation, lowering stress, can help combat depression and increases our self-esteem.
By giving our brains time to recover in this stimulus heavy world, it gives us the opportunity to recover and ultimately be more productive.
2. Reading helps you sleep
Seeing as reading creates a semi-meditative state, it probably comes as no surprise that regular readers sleep better.
Reading fiction (non-fiction can have the opposite effect) disengages you from the world and allows your mind to slip into a restful sleep.
As people with regular sleep patterns tend to be more productive and less stressed you can see the pattern emerging.
3. Reading exercises your mind
Recent studies in the US with people over the age of 50 have concluded that those who read as little as 3.5 hours a week are less likely to experience memory loss and a significant (32%) decrease in mental decline.
Just 55 minutes of reading a day can give your brain the workout it needs to stay healthy. On the basis that it takes the average person a 5 hours to read a 90,000 word novel, you could read 4 books a month for the same cost as the average gym membership.
It’s not a big outlay to keeping your mind as healthy as your body.
4. Reading makes you happier
Our brains find reading a satisfying experience. Considering we’re reducing stress, sleeping better and keeping our minds sharp it’s perhaps not all that surprising.
However, it goes deeper than that: our minds enjoy the stimulus as books present us with new situations and challenges our assumptions about the world and creates satisfying resolutions to challenging situations.
We invest ourselves emotionally in books than in films because the experience is entirely more personal so even if the story is tragic and the resolution isn’t a happy one, the catharsis can be just as positive
5. Reading can make you a better person
This may be a slight exaggeration but reading can create a stronger sense of empathy by exposing you to situations that would otherwise be alien to you. Because we experience a novel in a far more intimate way than a movie, those experiences can often feel as authentic as if we’d lived through them.
Reading can also help us improve relationships by equipping us with knowledge of instances that we would otherwise have no experience of. Whilst it could be argued that these are just words on a page, don’t forget every novel is an outpouring of someone’s psyche and experiences.
Equally those experiences can be far and away from what we would consider normal. They can open our mind to new ways of living, or challenge our existing views on the world.
Reading books set in inclusive, multi-cultural, societies have proven to make the reader more open minded and open to life styles that they had previously been uncomfortable with.
So if you want a longer, happier, more fulfilled life and a decent night’s sleep on top: read books. All the time.