How Reading Boosts Your Brainpower

Tim Watt  |  September 5, 2014

National Read a Book Day is celebrated Sept. 6, so it's the perfect time to curl up with an old favorite or head to the library to discover a new one. Book lovers know that reading can be an enjoyable way to pass the time alone and tune out the distractions of the world. However, there are also many practical, concrete benefits to reading proven by research. According to Yamina Today, the positive effects of reading stretch from the obvious, such as learning about new subjects and expanding vocabulary, to the surprising, such as fighting dementia and increasing empathy.

Plenty of research has been done on reading, according to the source, so it should come as no shock that a treasure trove of benefits have been revealed. What may be less predictable, however, is the nature of those benefits.

Learning from literature  
Some of the easier to anticipate gains include an increase in verbal skills and knowledge. Reading nonfiction may seem to be the most direct way of learning information, but many fiction books can teach readers new things as well, whether they realize it or not.

A report by researchers from the University of California, Berkley, and the University of Ontario examined a number of studies on reading, which focused on the amount participants read, rather than the kind of books. The study found that those who read the most experienced several benefits. For instance, higher rates of reading were associated with more knowledge of both the kind of abstract information that might be found on an SAT test and the kind that may come up in everyday life. The researchers said that participants were graded on intelligence tests to measure the former type of knowledge and a Practical Knowledge Test, which asked questions such as how a carburetor works and how many teaspoons are in a tablespoon. Readers were more likely to perform better in each of these categories than non-readers.

Subject matters 
These effects are highly beneficial, though not particularly surprising. However, reading fiction has been shown to help people in a number of ways that may be more difficult to predict or measure. Many of the advantages that fiction readers gain have to do with social skills, which could be due to the fact that fiction tends to deal more with people's emotions and lives than nonfiction does. A study published in the journal Science found that reading literary fiction in particular can boost a person's ability to interpret other people's emotions and feel empathy more than fiction from other genres.

According to researchers, the literary fiction genre's tendency to leave room for interpretation and ambiguity may be the cause of its unique benefits, since it requires readers to be more receptive to subtle cues and portrayals of complex emotions. Building empathy could be useful for many reasons, such as making it easier for people on both sides of the senior care equation to work together without straining the relationship.

Self-help 
In addition to helping people understand others' emotions, reading may help people gain better control over their own. Scoring another point for nonfiction, bibliotherapy is becoming an increasingly common treatment prescribed to people with mood disorders such as depression, The Wall Street Journal reported. Bibliotherapy involves prescribing patients to read self-help books that are readily available at bookstores and libraries.

One of the most popular books used in this kind of therapy is "Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy," written by David Burns, a Stanford psychiatrist. Therapists generally recommend the treatment as a complement to other methods. However, the Journal reported that it's sometimes used as a primary treatment in the U.K., where patients can wait up to six months before seeing a therapist, and in some cases it has been effective enough to help individuals avoid further therapy altogether.