The Reading Brain: Are the Benefits Myth or Truth?


Reading. We practice the action every day. We read up to 250 words per minute. Our parents and teachers advise us to read every day due to its benefits. Are these benefits a myth or a truth?

The Neurobiology

Research suggests that reading is a complex cognitive act; multiple networks must join within the human brain to accomplish the task of reading. When we view words and they enter the visual system, our brain is alerted so this language may be processed. Regions that are related to this are the classic Broca’s (the posterior part of the left inferior frontal gyrus) and Wernicke’s area (the posterior part of the superior temporal gyrus). Neuroimaging in today’s world has revealed that these areas not only correspond with each other but are associated with the prefrontal cortex, temporo-occipital area, fusiform gyrus, cerebellum, anterior cingulate gyrus, and elements of both the limbic system and right hemisphere. These areas are all found to be active when individuals are reading – confirming that there are multiple networks involved in the task such as attentional, emotional, and visual processing, as well as language comprehension.

What are the benefits?

In short, reading is a kind of workout for the muscles in the brain, such as the somatosensory cortex, which is why we are pushed towards the act. Not only does reading make us wiser and improve vocabulary, it also creates new memories. Due to these memories, the brain is able to form and strengthen connections between our neurons called synapses. Therefore, when we pay attention to names and places and plots in the book, we can memorize all these ideas. This stimulates the brain and trains it in such a way that we can delay cognitive decline, and strengthen the brain against some neurodegenerative diseases, such as dementia.

Reading is much more demanding on the brain than processing speech or images, while causing up to 68% less stress than staring at a screen. This suggests that reading before bed can also be a good ritual and allow the body to enter a state of deep sleep. Furthermore, reading can release neurotransmitters, such as serotonin and dopamine, that create a pleasurable feeling in the same way TV shows and movies can, without disrupting our sleep patterns with circadian rhythm-disrupting blue light.

Developmental psychologists have also explained how the theory of mind can be used to improve emotional intelligence when we read fiction. This is because reading about a character’s mental state makes it easier for us to imagine novel emotions or situations, and apply this empathy in real life.

However, it is worth noting that reading should not become a chore, nor should it happen in excess! When either of these happen, reading becomes a source of stress and loses meaningfulness.

“We are forced to construct, to produce narrative, to imagine,” says Maryanne Wolf, director of the Centre for Reading and Language Research at Tufts University and author of Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain. “Typically, when you read, you have more time to think. Reading gives you a unique pause button for comprehension and insight. By and large, with oral language—when you watch a film or listen to a tape—you don’t press pause.”

Recent research into dyslexia has revealed that remediation-induced changes to the visual networks could improve how we read in the long term. Therefore, as more and more people are turning into avid readers, those who have difficulty with language comprehension also have a bright future in store for them.

Sources: Bailey, S., Aboud, K., Nguyen, T. et al. Applying a network framework to the neurobiology of reading and dyslexia. J Neurodevelop Disord 10, 37 (2018).

Image Source: Pexels, photo by Stas Knop.

Edited by Cyrus Rohani-Shukla

1 thought on “The Reading Brain: Are the Benefits Myth or Truth?

  1. Well-written article on a thought-provoking topic! Enjoyed learning about the benefits of reading on the brain and was intrigued by the stats included in the article. Look forward to reading more Brain-Based blogs!

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