What Does Science Say About Reading?

It’s been a week, perhaps you’ve started on the 2019 STEM Reading Challenge? Or perhaps you need a little convincing.

So here it is, why should you read?


Firstly, there’s the benefits you hear a lot about

  • Increase your knowledge
  • Improve vocabulary
  • Improve writing skills
  • Make you smarter

I would say these are pretty obvious. When you read, you will gain knowledge, whether that’s knowledge from a non-fiction book designed almost solely to communicate knowledge, or if it’s knowledge from your favourite fantasy novel! Because reading fiction has actually been shown to correlate with an increase in peoples’ empathy, possibly with the reader acting as a type of bystander to subconsciously learn how individuals interact.*

Improved vocabulary and writing skills go hand-in-hand with each other and reading. As you read, you encounter new words and either look them up in a dictionary (if you’re dedicated) or just gather a general meaning from the context (if you’re somewhat lazier like myself). Your writing improves from the use of these new words and also improves as you subconsciously absorb writing techniques from what you are reading. Really, you’re just seeing good examples of how to write, like being an apprentice watching a master work in order to learn how to do it yourself. So you end up being able to write better. You’ll also see examples of (hopefully) correct grammar, spelling, punctuation, etc.. and learn that these “look right” and then use them correctly in your own writing.

And getting smarter! The one everybody seems to want, whether it’s in encouraging your children to read, or in trying to improve yourself, ‘smartness’ is pretty high on the list. It’s difficult to actually define what ‘smartness’ is though. Some people connect smartness with knowledge, but studies have shown that reading can increase verbal intelligence and IQ. When studying IQ, the researchers used twins as participants in order to control for genetic differences in intelligence and demonstrated as much as 7-13% increase in IQ from regular reading within the ages of 7-16, with reading at a younger age influencing intelligence later in teenage years. You can read the full text open access here.


Brain health

If reading can make you smarter, it can probably improve other areas of your brain as well. And that’s exactly what researchers have found. Reading is a whole workout for your brain and can improve your memory and thinking skills as well as hone your focus and concentration and also provide relief for stress and mild mental illnesses.

In regards to memory, reading regularly both early and later in life slowed memory decline and onset of dementia in older people by 15%. Participants who frequently engaged in mental activity such reading could slow memory decline by as much as 32%, while those who engaged in less than average mental stimulation had up to 48% greater decline rate on average. Talk about a good reason to read every day!

People who read regularly also tend to have better analytical thinking skills. Those come from when you’re reading a good mystery novel and solve the crime before it’s revealed. Or when you see the “surprise” plot twist coming and guess the ending. That’s really working out your brain and the results show.

Reading also improves your focus because to read a novel, you have to focus. Today’s world is full of distractions, short articles that are just trying to grab your attention, phone buzzing, email checking … and we rarely have to focus. Whereas to read a book, you need to have concentration far beyond the 3 minutes it’s taken you to read this far. And practice makes perfect. The more you read, the better you’ll be able to concentrate. Perhaps you’ve noticed that yourself if you used to read regularly and then didn’t for a while and found it difficult to pick up a book again because you were struggling to focus. This focus can also aid with stress and mental health relief because it gives your brain a single thing to focus on rather than running round a million different things at once and helps you to relax.


You could live longer!

I’ve really saved the best for last here. People who read regularly have an average life expectancy of 23 months more than non-readers. That’s nearly two extra years which the study authors describe as “the benefits of reading books include a longer life in which to read them”. They also note that:

“Book reading contributed to a survival advantage that was significantly greater than that observed for reading newspapers or magazines”

So clearly proper books are the way to go (and the paper versions have been shown to confer greater benefits than e-reading)! But why would reading let you live longer?

Personally, I’d like to think that people absorb knowledge of the ninja-like skills in action novels and use them to suddenly survive near-death experiences. In reality, we can’t know exactly why because we’ve noted a correlation: people who live longer have read more books, but don’t necessarily know why there is this correlation. The study proposes that increased intelligence and knowledge, as well as greater empathy (as addressed above) are traits that confer a survival advantage. And well, we said that reading helped promote brain health, so it makes sense that people with healthier brains do tend to live longer.


So it’s pretty clear by now. Go read a book. Maybe even a Biology book to fit in with this month’s theme in the 2019 STEM Reading challenge! But read something!



*The results of this study were questioned by a different research group who found that long-term readers did tend to show a greater degree of empathy. However the authors note that this again brings up a correlation vs. causation relationship– does reading increase empathy, or do more empathetic people tend to read more?

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