How Reading a Good Novel Improves Brain Functioning, EQ and Well-Being
When’s the last time you read a good novel? Cover to cover? And held the book in your hands? Many people today believe this is a waste of time because it doesn’t help with productivity. Far too many would prefer to read either non-fiction books or articles online. Yet research shows that reading a work of fiction, particularly a novel can have huge beneficial effects on your cognitive abilities, emotional intelligence and overall physical and psychological well-being.
If you’re reading an article online, research has shown the likelihood of you reading the whole article is slim. The internet has changed many of our habits. But one thing that hasn’t changed in nearly 20 years is the way we consume content online.
Most of us still skim and rarely read a full post. Millions of blog posts and articles are published every day. A small percentage are read. And among those readers, 55% will read the blog post for 15 seconds or less. (If you’re still reading, thanks for sticking with this one!)
In the publishing industry, adult non-fiction revenues are soaring above fiction revenues and have been widening the gap for the past five years. Adult non-fiction revenue totaled $6.18 billion across the publishing industry in 2017, while adult fiction revenues reached $4.3 billion, according to Penguin Random House, using data from Association of American Publishers (AAP), the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis, and Bookscan.
Increasingly, people are reading both non-fiction and fiction with e-readers, which, according to research studies, changes the way their brains function.
Virginia Clinton at the University of North Dakota, compiled results from 33 high-quality studies that tested students’ comprehension after they were randomly assigned to read on a screen or on paper and found that students of all ages, from elementary school to college, tend to absorb more when they’re reading on paper than on screens, particularly when it comes to non-fiction material.
Several other studies suggest that reading on paper instead of an electronic screen is better for memory retention and focus. The Guardian reported on an experiment from Norway where people were given a short story to read either on a Kindle or in a paperback book; when they were quizzed later, those who read the paperback were more likely to remember plot points in the right order.
Ferris Jabr, writing in Scientific American, compared reading on paper versus reading on digital screens, and found the research still supported the advantages of reading books on paper.
Researchers have noticed changes in reading behavior as readers adopt new habits while interfacing with digital devices. Ziming Liu at the University of San Jose, reported in her study that digital screen readers frequently used shortcuts such as browsing for keywords and selectivity, rather than read the entire piece. Moreover, they were more likely to read a document only once and expend less time with in-depth reading
Reading fiction not only is a great recreational activity, it also slows cognitive decline. One study showed that older readers have a 32 % lower rate of mental decline compared to their peers who didn’t read. In addition to slower memory decline, those who read more have been found to show fewer characteristics of Alzheimer’s disease, according to a 2001 study published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
A study published by Sandra Martin-Chang and colleagues in the journal Reading and Writing shows that the more people read any kind of fiction — even mass market stuff derided as pulp — the better their language skills are likely to be.
The researchers reported that people who enjoyed reading fiction for leisure scored higher on language tests, whereas those who read to only access specific information scored more poorly on the same tests.
Martin-Change noted that leisure reading is declining for younger adults. However, Martin-Chang says emphasizing the fun aspect of reading fiction can draw them back to novels while at the same time boost their verbal abilities. “It’s always very positive and heartening to give people permission to delve into the series that they like,” Martin-Chang notes. “I liken it to research that says chocolate is good for you: the guilty pleasure of reading fiction is associated with positive cognitive benefits and verbal outcomes.”
The Benefits of Reading Fiction
Besides having better verbal abilities, lifelong readers are known to be more understanding of others, more empathetic, less prejudiced, to attain higher socioeconomic status and even to live longer, healthier lives than non-readers. Reading fiction has additional benefits.
Reading fiction enhances creativity. Fiction often presents mystery uncertainty. In the movies, we often long for an anticipated if not certain happy ending. But fiction can be much more ambiguous. In that way, fiction enhances creativity. A study by Maja Djikic and colleagues published in Creativity Research Journal asked students to read either a short fictional story or a nonfiction essay and then measured their emotional need for certainty and stability. The researchers discovered that the fiction readers had less need for “cognitive closure than those who read non-fiction,” and added: “These findings suggest that reading fictional literature could lead to better procedures of processing information generally, including those of creativity.”
Reading fiction can extend your life. Researcher Avi Bivishi and colleagues, writing in the journal Social Science and Medicine, reported reading a book for 30 minutes every day forecasts a sharper, healthier mind, which predicted a 20% lower odds of dying about a decade later.
Reading a novel can improve brain functioning. A study on the brain benefits of reading fiction was conducted at Emory University titled, “Short- and Long-Term Effects of a Novel on Connectivity in the Brain,” was recently published in the journal Brain Connectivity. The researchers found that becoming engrossed in a novel enhances connectivity in the brain and improves brain function.
Reading fiction helps you become more inclusive, tolerant and open-minded. A study by Loris Vezzali and colleagues published in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology, had tested whether the novels of Harry Potter could be used for improving tolerance. The researchers conducted three experiments in which they had participants read passages from fiction books about discrimination. After, the researchers reported, the participants showed changed attitudes about everything from immigrants to gay students. The researchers concluded that young children, with the help of a teacher, “were able to understand that Harry’s frequent support of ‘mudbloods’ was an allegory towards bigotry in real-life society.”
Reading fiction makes you happier. A survey of 1,500 adult readers in the UK found that 76% of them said reading improves their life and helps to make them feel good. Other finds of the survey are that those who read books regularly are on average more satisfied with life, happier, and more likely to feel that the things they do in life are worthwhile.
Reading fiction improves peoples’ altruism and generosity. A study by D.R. Johnson and colleagues, published in the journal Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, found those people who regularly read fiction were more likely to be prosocial and help others in need.
Fiction readers tend to be less biased toward other cultures and races. Another study by Dan R. Johnson and colleagues, published Basic and Social Psychology, concluded that those people who regularly read fiction about other cultures and ethnic groups lessened their racial stereotypes and biases.
Research has identified something called “deep reading,” which is slow, immersive and reflective. Deep reading is what we experience when we readd a fiction novel. Deep reading is not the same as superficial reading, which is what we do when we read social media, emails and texting, which are all quick and non-reflective.
Deep reading lends itself to fiction. The structure of fiction book is uniquely conducive to the deep reading experience. The book has no hyperlinks or graphics and therefore frees the reader from distractions and making decisions — should I click on this link or not?
Deep reading is conducive to how our brains see things — as a narrative, rich in detail, illusion and metaphor. When we read fiction we create a mental picture that accesses the same brain regions as a real life event.
Fictional stories present us with the characters’ emotional states, moral dilemmas, and critical decisions that put us inside the minds of the characters. In doing so, we increase our real-life capacity for open-mindedness, empathy and compassion.
The deep reader, immerse in the book is protected from distractions and attuned to the nuances of language, and enters a state that psychologist Victor Nell, in his study of the psychology of pleasure reading, likens to a hypnotic trance. Nell found that “when readers are enjoying the experience the most, the pace of their reading actually slows. The combination of fast, fluent decoding of words and slow, unhurried progress on the page gives deep readers time to enrich their reading with reflection, analysis, and their own memories and opinions.”
Leaders should regularly read novels as a way of strengthening their leadership skills. I recommend to my executive coaching leader clients that they undertake, if they have not done so already, regularly reading fiction as a way of improving cognitive functioning, well-being, learning how to slow down, improve cognitive functioning, understand others, and reduce stress.
Speaking of reading novels, be sure to read my novel, Dragon Tamer, an espionage-crime thriller.