Some fish, hike or meditate. Renee Zurn reads.
“It takes me away from what is happening in the world. It’s a different place to live in for a half-hour, hour,” she said.
This year, the Duluth Public Library circulation services supervisor found comfort diving into books about past pandemics, American history during the presidential election, and re-reading old mysteries.
“It might be a dead body in my novel, but I knew it would resolve happily,” she said.
Along with a healthy dose of escapism, the whole-health benefits of reading are many — and counting.
“We’re doing a lot of work when we read,” said Lori Helman, director of the Minnesota Center for Reading Research and professor of literary education at the University of Minnesota.
It activates a number of processes in the brain: linguistic language, reading comprehension, decoding and word recognition.
On top of the utilitarian benefits, reading opens a path to other interests and ideas that might not be within our physical reach, and it opens the door to the internal workings of others and ourselves, Helman said.
Reading also offers a break from anxiety or negative rumination.
Your brain’s not able to dedicate CPU power to worries or sad thoughts because its resources have been redirected to a mindful activity, said Dr. Judith Christianson, pediatric psychiatrist at St. Luke’s.
And: “It’s an empathy builder.”
Reading allows you practice being in somebody’s else’s shoes, and we actually elicit emotions when we read, Christianson said.
Avid readers are better able to think creatively.
And, comprehensive reading exercises cognitive function and hits underworked areas of the brain, according to The Atlantic.
And there’s a bonus for fiction readers.
According to the National Center for Biotechnology Information, people who read fiction possess stronger social-cognitive abilities than non-readers and non-fiction readers.
Reading improves the craft of writing. It means more exposure to a wider vocabulary, you have a better chance of using words appropriately and you’re exposed to a different writing style.
Reading is a solitary activity, but it’s still very social.
Zenith Bookstore’s virtual book clubs have been alive and well during the pandemic, a fact manager Nikki Silvestrini attributes to the social piece of reading.
Part of the joy of a book is discussing it with others, Zurn said.
As humans, we want to do something with what we’re learning and experiencing, we want to talk about it, added Helman.
Books have always been a point of contact for Silvestrini. “Some of my best friends growing up, the reason we connected was we were all book nerds. … That’s still the status of most of my friendships,” she said.
It has also been a reliable coping mechanism for symptoms of depression.
It’s an immersive experience, and it can help when you’re trying to process where you are in life, she said.
In the past year, along with dipping more into graphic novels and manga, Silvestrini also revisited old comfort reads. Knowing what to expect, what would make her laugh or sad, brought an added level of comfort during the uncertainty of the past months, she said.
Reading is also an essential part of child development.
Even if they have no language yet, infants are passively absorbing the sound of language as you read to them, Christianson said.
For toddlers and preschoolers who are starting to learn their letters, hearing someone read builds their ability to read fluidly and with emotion, and it supports their sounding words out.
Reading to children from birth to age 5 boosts brain development, and kids who frequently read with their caregiver scored higher on cognitive tests, according to a Reading & Literacy Discovery Center of Cincinnati’s Children’s Hospital.
Studies also show that a reduced risk of Alzheimer’s disease and preserved thinking skills later in life, such as reading, are associated.
While reading may not stop Alzheimer’s or dementia, Christianson said, it will make for a more “cross-trained, physically fit” brain because it strengthens cognitive processing skills, sequencing and memory, which leaves the brain with more reserves in the face of aging.
For you audiobook listeners, this format offers verbal knowledge and a mirror into another world, but it doesn’t exercise the same mechanics as reading, so its health benefits are not the same, Helman said. The same goes for watching something on a screen.
When we read, our brains translate text into a picture, expressions, body movement, intonations and a setting. But our imaginations can take a snooze during a movie or TV show, where the audio and visual content is set for us, Christianson said.
The experts said that even with reading, there is such a thing as overdoing it. The act of reading itself would not cause harm, but the content can potentially create distress. It can become too much of an escape, such as reading instead of going for a walk or to avoid the news.
“We don’t want to be reading to the exclusion of other healthy things, exercise or sleep. But generally, there’s not a whole lot of negative consequences,” Helman said.
How to encourage little ones to read
A great way to build reading into a child's daily life is to create a family reading time where you’re reading one book together or all are reading individually in a shared space.
Children really like to mimic what the adults in their lives are doing, so this is a good way to reinforce this habit, said Judith Christianson, pediatric psychiatrist at St. Luke’s.
Connect what the child is reading with things in real life. For instance, if you're reading about painting, participate in that activity with them.
Ask questions about what's going on in what they're reading. Prompt them to share about the characters' actions, thoughts and feelings.
Let the kiddo choose their reading material. Sure, stick to their required reading for school, but letting them follow their interests and passions will ignite a love of reading.
Choose books at their reading level and also consider book series.
Another way is to find materials on subjects of interest for the youth. That can open their eyes to different material and engage them, said Lori Helman, professor of literary education at the University of Minnesota.