Keep your brain in shape by reading more books

Reading books can exercise your brain and even boost your emotional intelligence. Despite this, many Americans don’t read frequently and our overall book-reading time is on the decline.

It’s time to buck this trend, especially now that many people are spending more time indoors due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. So grab a book off the shelf, check out your local library, or turn on your neglected e-reader and give that gray matter a good workout.

Why you should embrace books

Science has found that reading is essential for a healthy brain. We already know reading is good for children’s developing noggins: A study of twins published by the Society for Research in Child Development found that kids who started reading at an earlier age went on to perform better on certain intelligence tests, such as analyses of their vocabulary size.

Other studies show that reading continues to develop the brains of adults. One 2012 Stanford University study, where people read passages of Jane Austen while inside an MRI, indicates that different types of reading exercise different parts of your brain. As you get older, a more recent study suggests, reading might help slow down or even halt cognitive decline.

Words on a page can also improve your emotional intelligence. A 2016 overview of the issue demonstrated that fiction readers tend to have a well-developed sense of what psychologists call “theory of mind.” This is the ability to attribute mental states to yourself and to others, and to grasp that other people may have different desires, emotions, and thoughts. As a result, regular readers show more empathy for other people.

So books can not only stretch your brain, but also make you a better person. Now to dig down and actually read more.

How to actually read more

You’ve got a busy schedule—sometimes you just can’t find the time to read. That’s why you need to start small. When setting a new goal, you should aim for a concrete task that you can build on later. So start your habit by reading, say, five pages of a book that interests you every day. Once you’re hitting five pages a day, try 10, then 20, and keep pushing your goal horizon upward.

Focusing on your own interests is key. Don’t jump right into The Brothers Karamazov just because it’s Serious Literature—you can still get those aforementioned brain benefits from your favorite science fiction. Reading a book of your choice makes the activity a pleasure rather than a chore, so you’re more likely to do it. (And if you do have a yen for Dostoevsky, you can tackle that tome once you’ve made a regular habit of chewing through pages.)

As you start creating this routine, be kind. Self-criticism, aka “self-bullying,” has been shown to keep you from achieving your goals. So cut yourself some slack, especially if you’re starting from zero. Even if you miss a day, recognize that we all sometimes stay out late, get wrapped up in a TV show, or just forget. Be willing to pick yourself back up and honor the long-term commitment the next day.

To fit in those five pages, it also helps to keep a book, audiobook app, or e-reader on you as you go about the day. Then, when you have some down time—you’re waiting for a friend, dozing through your commute, or doing a task that doesn’t require your full attention—you can open your text instead of pulling up your favorite smartphone game.

This brings us to the great debate: pages versus screens versus audio. While paper is still the clear winner in the court of public opinion, science hasn’t proven that physical books are inherently better than digital ones.

Academic research has mostly focused on retention, that is, how much of a book’s events you remember after you read it. Although paper books may have a leg up on that score, their advantage appears to depend on environment and context. The aforementioned pro-paper study took place in a laboratory setting: Students all read the same text, but some looked at the words on paper and others viewed an on-screen PDF. A different study looked at kids in the classroom, reading from either a book or an iPad, and found no meaningful difference between the two media.

Carrying an e-reader with you certainly makes it easy to churn through pages at any time. But which one should you choose? You could see who offers e-ink screens, look for the lowest price, or obsess over specs. Really, the main point to consider is the books you like to read. While you’ll find most large publishers on all the major e-reader platforms, Amazon’s Kindle is by far the most popular storefront for self-published books and niche tastes. If there’s an author or genre you’re particularly interested in, do some research and see which stores they sell through—Amazon, Rakuten’s Kobo, or Barnes and Noble’s Nook—before you buy. And remember, you can always try out the apps before you invest in the device.

As for audiobooks, the research so far has found that they stimulate the brain just as deeply as black-and-white pages, although they affect your gray matter somewhat differently. Because you’re listening to a story, you’re using different methods to decode and comprehend it. With print books, you need to provide the voice, called the prosody—you’re imagining the tune and rhythm of speech, the intonation, the stress on certain syllables, and so on. With audio, the voice actor provides that information for you, so your brain is simply working to understand the prosody in your ears.

Prosody aside, audiobooks still affect your thoughts and feelings. In other words, yes, listening to them “counts” as reading. This is good news, because they make it easy to squeeze more book time into your schedule. You can plug in some headphones and listen to an audiobook even when you need to keep your eyes peeled—like when you ride, walk, or drive to work. In fact, on the highway, an audiobook may help you pay attention: The slight distraction lets your brain keep a handle on repetitive or monotonous tasks like long drives on the highway.

If you don’t want to spend too much money, you can also enjoy digital books without paying a cent. Libraries have been embracing technology by leaps and bounds, with two apps in particular: Overdrive and its sister Libby. Simply download the app, find your library, and enter your library card number. After this setup, you can borrow free ebooks and audiobooks, then read or listen to them through the app or on a compatible device. And if you already have an Amazon Prime account, you can save a little money by browsing its various lending libraries and enjoying the free book you get once a month.

Ultimately, if you hope to get a reading habit going, you shouldn’t dismiss paper, digital, or audio. Go with what makes the most sense for your needs and don’t be afraid to change things up depending on the occasion.

Apply those sharpened reading skills

Now that you’re turning into a bookworm, your new habit can help you in all sorts of ways.

For example, one study measured how certain activities slowed heart rate and found that reading just six pages of a book makes you 68 percent more relaxed. But that research was commissioned by a chocolate company running a book giveaway, not exactly an unbiased source of funding. Plus, the calming effect likely depends on the book—just ask anybody who’s read Stephen King late at night.

That doesn’t mean reading can’t help you sleep, though. Browsing through a book is a common “calming activity,” part of the daily bedtime routine doctors recommend you establish. Reading in bed can essentially cue your body to go to sleep.

If you spend your evening with your nose in paper pages, they will also prevent you from indulging in bad habits like looking at your phone before bed. And if all you have to read is on your phone, you can minimize the amount of light it projects to prevent it from disrupting your z’s too much.

Books can even help you get fit—that is, if they’re audiobooks. It comes down to a technique called “temptation bundling.” A University of Pennsylvania study found that people who were only allowed to listen to a thrilling audiobook at the gym hit the treadmill more often. Trashy thrillers, it turns out, are a great way to get in shape.

Finally, reading has the power to boost your productivity. Taking a break from one task to focus on another, one that uses different skills, can improve your focus and short-term memory. So mentally stepping away for a moment lets you return to the task with a fresh vision and renewed focus. Next time you lose motivation at work, the solution could be taking in a few pages during your lunch break.

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