The ultimate brain workout

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Read any good books lately? If not, you should really consider hitting up your local library. Reading isn’t just a great way to escape day-to-day life for a while – it offers some exciting wellbeing benefits, too. No, really! 

Whether you love a good thriller, can’t put down the classics or are hooked on sci-fi, a gripping page-turner can help you shoulder the burden of stress, boost your mood and self-esteem, ease depression and pain, and – in some cases – even spark new pathways in the brain. ‘The brain is a muscle and it needs exercise to keep fit,’ says Debbie Hicks, director of research at The Reading Agency. ‘There is lots of evidence to show that reading is a form of exercise for the brain, keeping it agile, engaged and learning.’ 

Intrigued? Read on!

Story time

So what happens in your brain when you read a novel? Scientists from Emory University in the US have found that fiction with a strong narrative heightens connectivity in the brain and the positive effects can last up to five days after you’ve turned the last page.

The US study echoes findings by the University of Liverpool’s Centre for Research into Reading, Information and Linguistic Systems (CRILS), which show that reading works by Shakespeare and Wordsworth sparks high levels of electrical activity in the brain. Crucially, researchers noticed the activity wasn’t just in the left hemisphere where language is decoded, but the right side, too – that is, the part that controls self-reflection and appraisal. It’s what Professor Philip Davis, director of CRILS, describes as a ‘rocket-booster for the brain’. 

‘Reading literature – poetry and novels – provides effort for the mind without seeming effortful,’ explains Professor Davis, who works with charity The Reader Organisation to provide community programmes based on the centre’s research. ‘We believe it has a major effect on the personal and emotional side of the brain. It’s to do with seeking and finding meaning in the world.’

So the good news for you is that not only do you get to enjoy the brilliance of a masterful author, but your grey matter gets a great workout at the same time, helping to safeguard it as you age. A study in the online journal Neurology last year found that mental stimulation from activities such as reading was linked to slower cognitive decline in later years, and lifelong bookworms stayed mentally sharp the longest.

Just relax

There’s a reason we all pack a best-seller to read on holidays – books offer a quick route out of our everyday problems. It’s why scientists and psychologists agree that reading is an effective stress-busting solution. In fact, research from the University of Sussex found that reading can chill you out in a mere six minutes flat. Amazing, right? ‘Reading can help you escape life’s pressures or allow you to explore issues and problems through the lens of fictional characters and storylines,’ explains Debbie.

But the therapeutic effects go even deeper than a sense of calm, says Professor Davis. ‘Our research indicates that [reading activates] one crucial area in the brain – the caudate nucleus – which simultaneously helps figure out meaning when things change, and also provides a sense of reward. That area of the brain is particularly unactivated among the depressed,’ he explains. ‘Most ill health is to do with getting stuck and feeling passive. We know that literature can get you out of those defaults.’

Reading has another, often-overlooked role, too – reflecting life back to us, warts and all. ‘Most of us feel sorrow at times and literature tells us that that is normal,’ Professor Davis says. ‘It also shows great movements into happiness or recovery.’

Choose your words

So does the kind of book you read matter? You betcha. Most mental benefits seem to stem from reading novels and poetry, and there’s a physical boon, too – a good story may also be helpful in dealing with pain, says Professor Davis. ‘In a recent research project we did with sufferers of chronic pain, the people involved said they wanted deeper, harder books – for example, dense language in areas of emotional difficulty – because only they would fill their minds sufficiently to take away the pain for a while,’ he explains. 

But non-fiction also has its place. Despite their slightly naff rep, self-help books have been shown to be far more than a gimmick. Last year, a Scottish study found people with depression who were given self-help books and sessions on how to use them had lower levels of depression a year later than those who were treated with regular GP care. The NHS now supports a national ‘books on prescription’ scheme, delivered by The Reading Agency with the Society of Chief Librarians, which provides access to free books-based therapy through libraries. ‘There is a clear evidence base to show that books-based CBT can help people understand and manage common mental health conditions, such as anxiety, depression and sleeping disorders,’ says Debbie. ‘Books can either be prescribed by mental health professionals or used on a self-help basis as a first step in getting help.’

Share the love

It’s not just about what you read, but the people that you choose to share your experience with, too. Reading may strike you as a bit of a solitary task, but sharing your favourite books with others in a book group, reading aloud and discussing a story can be great fun and could have some major health benefits. 

‘There is strong evidence to suggest that sharing reading with others can connect people, build social capital and combat loneliness,’ says Debbie. ‘These are all key determinants of good mental health.’Professor Davis agrees. ‘When people read a book aloud and discuss it, they’re thinking afresh. The vital thing is not to think of literature as elitist or special or arty farty – it’s our lives.’ Sounds pretty awesome to us.

Now that’s got to be worth digging out your old library card for, right?  

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