What Reading Does To Your Brain Is Truly Fascinating

A trip to the bookstore is in order.

"I have always imagined that paradise will be a kind of library," Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges once said. The accuracy of that attribution is debatable, but the quote's sentiment undeniably resonates with those who love to read. It comes as no surprise then that reading is good for your brain in a number of ways, whether you're engrossed in a George R. R. Martin fantasy novel or a personal essay about one man's search for an identity.

Reading can take you to imaginary lands, foster understanding of different cultures and let you live lives you couldn't in the real world. Sure, that sounds like a romanticization of reading, but science has shown that it has very real benefits for the brain, too. 

Literacy levels in America are bleak: 1 in 4 American children grow up without learning to read and 93 million Americans have basic or below-basic literacy. The downside is that the right to literacy is not extended to everyone; on the other hand, community efforts to improve literacy in America point to an understanding of its importance as a tool for personal growth that benefits society, too. 

So if you're reading this — and you're one of the more fortunate ones — here's how reading can affect your brain in the most remarkable ways. 

1. Reading rewires your brain.

Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University observed the structure of children's brains before and after 100 hours of intensive reading training. At the end of the study, the white matter (the stuff that improves brain communication) in their brains increased and they were able to read better.

2. Reading in a foreign language can make your brain grow.

Learning a foreign language can be challenging. But one of the best ways to improve is to read in the language you're learning — it improves vocabulary, gives context for new words and reinforces our memory. 

A study by the Swedish Armed Forces Interpreter Academy showed that those who underwent intensive language instruction saw significant size growth in parts of the brain that involved learning new material and spatial navigation, further strengthening the argument for reading.

3. Reading about an experience is like you're living it yourself.

Researchers in Spain found that the brain does not draw huge contrasts between reading about an encounter and experiencing it in real life. Fiction books offer a particularly vivid replica of real life, the New York Times reported, and allowed readers to fully submerge themselves in another person's thoughts and feelings.

4. Different reading styles create different brain patterns.

At Stanford University, researchers observed an interesting difference when people skimmed through excerpts of a Jane Austen novel and when they actually read closely as if they were studying for an exam. 

In both instances, blood flow in the brain increased, but in separate parts. The study gave researchers a glimpse at the kind of effects our reading ways have on our brains.

5. Reading makes you more empathetic.

Some say there are two types of fiction — literary and genre. Researchers found that besides the categorical distinction, its impact on the human brain is also different. Those who read literary fiction tested better for understanding other's thoughts and feelings, which meant their capacity for empathy was better than those who read nonfiction or genre fiction.

6. It could also make you smarter.

Writing in The Guardian, Dan Hurley pointed to recent studies confirming that the relationship between reading and intelligence is so close that it could be symbiotic. Listing out three types of intelligence most recognized by psychologists, Hurley stated that people who read overall performed better on all fronts.

Convinced yet? Maybe it's time to pick up that book you've been neglecting.

Cover image via iStock / Kuzmichstudio