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The Health Benefits of Reading

by Graciela Justiniano


It’s easy to think about health in terms of kale and exercise, but did you know that reading can improve your health and society as a whole?


I love to listen to audiobooks and podcasts while doing repetitive tasks, like washing the dishes or while taking a walk, but none of these replace the effect of reading.


Why?


Listening to information allows our eyes to wander and when our eyes wander so does our mind. As a result, we do not retain the information as well as if we were seeing the words. When we speak or listen, even if we are not doing anything else, we are still multitasking.


In order for us to listen, our brain needs to process the acoustics into speech and then handle the language processing ( similar to when we multitask by switching from one task to another rapidly). If you are listening to someone with clear pronunciation and no noise around you, consider yourself fortunate. When we are silently reading, our brain focuses mainly on language processing, helping us to remember the information much quicker than if we were consuming it auditorily (Sousa, Carriere, and Smilek, 2013).


The research above reminds me of what happens when we start to sing the lyrics of songs we like. I don’t know about you, but I don't always get them right. It’s not until I read them that I can better understand the meaning of the words. Sometimes the results of mishearing can be quite funny as shown in this video.




Besides an increase in information retention, reading increases your vocabulary. Remember the famous saying “a picture is worth a thousand words?” It would make sense then that reading a book, rather than watching the movie about the book, will introduce you to a myriad of new words since the author needs to create the image rather than simply show it. Why are new words important?


We seek novelty due to a neurotransmitter called dopamine. Dopamine is released when we have a positive experience. The experience can’t be part of a routine though. If you are walking and notice a new bakery, your dopamine goes into its receptor and you feel the urge to go try out the food or plan to visit the bakery later. On the other hand, if you eat breakfast at that bakery every day and get the same food, dopamine is not released because the action has become a habit. The action is not new and exciting so there is very little dopamine involved in it. The video below explains the concept of dopamine and novelty in more depth.





In a similar way, if you communicate with people using simple words, they are least likely to remember you. People crave the-new because it is part of our biology. Using unusual words activates the dopamine receptors in people’s brain, which means they will find you more interesting and will be more apt to want to continue the conversation.


In addition, the more words we know the better we can express ourselves, which decreases the emotion of frustration. In fact, according to the article, “Early Language Impairment and Young Adult Delinquent and Aggressive Behavior” there are high rates of language impairment in youth who have behavior problems and/or are incarcerated. When we read, we can see our situations expressed in words and use those words to communicate our feelings rather than aggression or depression. Not only is our communication better when we read but our brain improves physically as well.


When we read we create new brain pathways in the brain. Our brain experiences the plot as if we lived it, but with less intensity so we can avoid copying every action in the book. As a result, reading allows you to have many experiences for very little to no cost and our brain thrives with new experiences, connections/neural pathways. All the connections that happen in your brain while you read help prevent brain damage by 30%. However, the benefits of reading go beyond you and your brain.


In order for a society to function, the people in the society need to think about the well-being of the group, not just what they want. A person who has a sufficient amount of empathy can understand and feel what others are feeling. When a person is shown empathy, levels of anger are more likely to decrease. The science term is called negative correlation. The less empathy the more anger and the more empathy the less anger. Guess what is one way that we learn empathy? You got it! By reading. When we read about a character’s actions and feelings we are more likely to recognize similar actions and feelings in the people around us. Consequently, we are better prepared to show them empathy rather than walk away from their painful or angry expressions.


Now, in this fast paced society how do we find time to read?


I like to “ save two birds with one hand” and read while I exercise on my stationary bicycle. My son, who also has ADHD, sets a timer for 15 minutes to read then do ten push-ups. I also read during waiting times. You could join a book club to have accountability in your reading journey. There are book clubs online or sometimes in your local library. You could also talk about the book you are reading in your social media or a youtube channel.


If you have a child and are feeling overwhelmed by all the duties of being a parent, we at Community Literacy can read with your child so he/she can gain all the benefits of reading while you take a well deserved break. Together we can harvest the power of reading, one sentence at a time.



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