A careful look at the latest reading research reveals that bookworms might be onto something. Experts say that avid readers experience everything from improved memory to countless social emotional benefits.
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"You can transport yourself to places that might exceed your own resources or ability to travel to," says Dr. Anne E. Cunningham, a professor of cognition and development at UC Berkeley's Graduate School of Education and author of "Book Smart: How to Develop and Support Successful, Motivated Readers." "You can learn about places that don't exist in your physical world, but now exist in your imagination."
In other words, there's a reason why Stephen King famously referred to books as "a uniquely portable magic."
If you aren't reading regularly, here are four direct benefits that might nudge you into your local bookstore.
IT MAKES YOU MORE EMPATHETIC
If literary fiction is your thing, chances are high that you're more empathetic than most. A 2013 report published in The Guardian cited one study that strongly supports the link. More specifically, reading this type of fiction made study subjects better able to pick up and interpret other people's feelings. Researchers say this is vital when it comes to complex relationships.
Another 2014 study found similar results among children—fictional texts teach empathy. The idea behind the findings is that when we read such stories, it stirs our own personal experiences. This, in turn, relays shared connections regarding relationships.
IT BOOSTS YOUR VOCABULARY
People who read on the regular demonstrate a more expansive vocabulary. And according to Cunningham, the literacy activities we do with our preschoolers and early elementary kids actually facilitate their reading comprehension as they grow older.
"But very quickly, usually between third and fifth grade, the vocabulary they're reading exceeds their own oral language," says Cunningham, who adds that the only way you can really acquire these rare, unique words is through reading a lot. "You're just not going to get the constellation of words by any other avenue other than reading."
The relationship between reading and vocabulary acquisition doesn't just apply to kids; adults can also reap the vocab benefits.
Most longtime readers can name a particular book that helped them through a tough time. It turns out there's a term for this: bibliotherapy. It works by using a person's relationship to written words as a form of therapy.
"When children read or are read to, they're learning about other worlds, other people, kids like me," says Cunningham. "Parents may not have the words to communicate about divorce, or the loss of a pet, or moving to a new place; but they can open a book and the child can begin to understand the experience."
Bibliotherapy is a powerful tool, regardless of age. (Its benefits have been directly linked to improved depression symptoms.)
IT IMPROVES CRITICAL THINKING SKILLS
Sticking your nose in a book is also associated with the ability to think in a more abstract way. "There's a little bit of literature showing that it affects decontextualized reasoning, or critical thinking," says Cunningham. "So we see a strong correlation between kids and adults who are avid readers and their ability to think more rationally and reasonably."
These skills come into play when trying to make sense of a storyline, predicting a book's outcome, or analyzing character motivations—which are all forms of critical thinking. In simpler terms, reading gives your brain a mental workout.