Why Should I Read? The Benefits of Reading.

Imagine you are sitting in your favorite location. This could be anywhere: a bustling city shop where people come and go as noisy flashes of color, a cheerful park full of distant chatter and dappled sunshine, a garden full of birdsong and the patient stretch of plant life, or even the safety and seclusion of your own bedroom. No matter where you imagined, you have created a visual in your mind, along with a narrative of what you are doing there, what you are smelling, a vast array of personal descriptions. Without realizing it, you have just told yourself a story. The process of collecting and recollecting narrative is so intimate to the human mind that often times, we don’t realize how much we need it, and how much it can be abused.
Even now we find incredible physical, cognitive and emotional benefits in the practice of storytelling and narrative. Emotionally speaking, it is our ability to communicate the outside world to ourselves and then communicate that new internal world with the people around us. However, it is also a primal part of our being, connecting us to ancestors long forgotten. Language, according to a study done by psychologist Thomas Morgan at the UC Berkeley, was probably a byproduct of human beings attempting to teach each other how to make tools. The creation of tools and language allowed us to function more efficiently, decreasing our time struggling to survive alone and increasing our time investing in innovation and creation together. Any time a perceived “success” is achieved such as this, dopamine is released into our brains, helping us to remember and to repeat that success. Dopamine is a very powerful chemical which helps regulate sex drive, learning, movement control, memory, mood, sleep, habit forming and much more. This ancient, subconscious reward system has undoubtedly contributed to our desire for social interaction and collaboration, leading to increasingly empathetic and intelligent civilizations. Simultaneously, dopamine has also been used as a tool to manipulate people (whether consciously or subconsciously) more and more throughout the years.
The ongoing creation of new, streamlined means of communication has birthed some unforeseen obstacles to true understanding. For example, imagine once more that you are sitting in your favorite location, now add your phone. The constant stimulation of social media creates a dependency that exhausts dopamine levels and creates unnecessary stressors. Most likely, as you imagine looking at your phone, you can’t pin point any particular sensory input, just a vague recollection of certain people you watch live “more colorful lives” or “have more impact”. However, you can also more immediately communicate with the outside world and the outside world can communicate immediately with you. This new technology is a powerhouse of dopamine release. Since it is such a powerful chemical it has become overused in our advertising, unlimited apps, and social medias. Sean Parker, the founding president of Facebook admitted to manipulating dopamine techniques to devour as much of everyone’s attention and time as he can. According to an article in The Guardian, this technique is an evolutionarily dangerous one:
“These unnaturally large rewards are not filtered in the brain – they go directly into the brain and overstimulate, which can generate addiction,” explains (Wolfram) Shultz. “When that happens, we lose our willpower. Evolution has not prepared our brains for these drugs, so they become overwhelmed and screwed up. We are abusing a useful and necessary system. We shouldn’t do it, even though we can.”
With our need to communicate and consume more, we have created a hamster wheel of stimulation for ourselves. Luckily, recent statistics have begun to show a resurgence of awareness despite this “hamster wheel” effect. More people are returning to reading.
Studies on how reading influences the brain suggests a very powerful alternative to our pocket super computers. Many times I have heard people laugh and complain about how their attention span “just isn’t like it used to be” or how they “can’t seem to read as well anymore” or talk about how they don’t like to read. Even as a previously avid reader myself, I found that my own attention span was slipping. This is because we have found a way to bypass the mental exercise and still get the dopamine, this is like forgoing the work out at the gym and going straight to the sugar packed energy/protein bar. Realizing this, there is only one way to combat it: resume the practice and mental exercise of focus and reading.
For people who struggle with reading, it is essential to start with a narrative that is engaging for them. Not every book will spark interest, and if a person finds themself forcing themself to read, maybe they should try a different book. Good narrative has a way of capturing our attention because it appeals to our emotions, therefore satisfying our need for connection, entertainment and information. However, since we are also curious and analytical creatures, narrative is not enough. It is important to have context, application and conclusion of a problem to properly engage the natural human systems for pattern recognition, problem solving and empathetic responses. This search for context, application and conclusion is something that is rarely satisfied by social media.
The physiological benefits of reading include an ever widening, smoothing and quickening of the neurological pathways between sections of the brain (a substance referred to as white matter), and access to our dopamine levels. White matter in the brain (mainly nerve fibers, named after their white “myelin sheaths”) is the “highway” of information sent between the sections of the brain. This means that as you read, your ability to read is strengthened. Story structure encourages the human brain to think in sequence, dramatically (with practice) expanding attention spans as well as the ability to link cause and effect. With larger attention spans and the better understanding of cause and effect, outbursts of aggression and irritability are reduced. There are many means through which we can harvest the benefits of narrative such as: literary/nonfiction reading, fiction reading, poetry, music, and ebooks. Some of these are more beneficial than others. Think of it as different exercises for different parts of your body, while some are hugely beneficial to certain areas, others may be better for beginners. Unlike watching a movie which has been shown to reduce one’s ability to understand that people can have ideas and beliefs other than one’s own (theory of mind), reading can improve your theory of mind. As written in an article in Pyschology Today:
“The changes caused by reading a novel were registered in the left temporal cortex, an area of the brain associated with receptivity for language, as well as the the primary sensorimotor region of the brain. Neurons of this region have been associated with tricking the mind into thinking it is doing something it is not, a phenomenon known as grounded, or embodied cognition.”
This “trickery” is very beneficial for allowing readers to step into someone else’s shoes and experience an expansion of their own “theory of mind”. Literary, (or reading for education and analysis) is shown to increase multiple complex cognitive functions, challenging your critical thought process, creating a stronger bond between the grasp of cause and effect. Reading fiction is just as beneficial although it may in some cases be better for the advancement of empathetic responses. For beginners, poetry is like short bursts of exercise. Due to the dopamine releases at the completion of a project or the solution of a conflict, poetry has the unique ability to engage you as a book would, but at the end of each stanza you receive a boost of dopamine, so you are more instantly gratified.
Reading is not a complete solution to discontent or aggression, but it is a step in the right direction. Focusing on a story is just one of the many ways one can improve their overall wellbeing, and even though it can be difficult at first, it is important for the individual and society. Imagine not living in competition, not combatively seeking personal validation and entertainment, but beginning to understand the world around you in a manner that allows you to live in collaboration, seeking to improve and communicate. As we work to improve ourselves, we improve the world around us. So go pick up that book you haven’t finished yet, or start a completely new one, and make a difference.

Works Cited