How Reading Reshapes Your Brain


Reading fiction improves our ethical and empathetic skills

Reading fiction — immersing yourself in the life of another and seeing the world through their eyes — has always anecdotally been good for broadening one’s outlook. But now there’s hard science to say it actually makes us more empathetic. To be fair, the study (done, again, at Emory, who are doing a lot of work on books and their interaction with the brain) focused entirely on the kind of fiction that’s explicitly about character, from Anna Karenina to the steam-of-consciousness modernists like Virginia Woolf. But the results were pretty unequivocal: after reading them, subjects were more empathetic and emotionally intelligent, able to “feel” the movements of the characters in the movement areas of their own brains.

Reading intricate characters prompts the brain to ‘write’ them

The brain has numerous ways of interpreting and remembering letter symbols; it develops a symbolic language to help it. But one of the most fascinating ways in which it copes happens when it’s reading something particularly complicated and unfamiliar, like kanji or calligraphy. It turns out that the brain actually “writes” the letter; the part of the brain associated with physically making text lights up, as if it’s physically moving a pen over the lines of the symbol.

We actually react physically to metaphors in books

A study by Emory University revealed that metaphors are actually more physical than we think they are — at least the ones about texture. They compared peoples’ MRI scans when they heard metaphors that used texture (“She had a rough day” was the example they gave), to when they heard the same statement without a metaphor (“She had a bad day”). The results? On hearing the texture metaphor, the part of the brain that activates when we actually touch something lit up. We’re genuinely feeling the metaphors we read.

Poetry boosts our memory

Poetry, it turns out, stimulates our brains in much the same way that music does: it links to the right half of the brain, which regulates emotion. It’s also prone to send us into a self-reflective, memory-boosting state, particularly when reading well-known poems we love. Poetry also lights up the areas of the brain that concern memory and switch on when we’re relaxing. Call it the “poetry trance”.

Reading reduces stress even more than music

In 2009, the University of Sussex did a study that showed that half an hour of dedicated reading is better for your stress levels than several other more traditional methods of relaxation, like having a cup of tea or listening to music. It reduced stress levels by up to 68 percent, which is pretty significant. Scientists think the reason is partially escapism, partially physical focus: complete immersion in a book means the body is less focused on its own tense muscles, and relaxes.