To build muscle or endurance, you lift weights, run, bike. You exercise. There's a way to bulk up your brain strength, too: Books. Reading is like doing burpees for your brain. Especially if you start young.
A Carnegie Mellon study found when kids get intensive reading instruction early on, brains physically rewire themselves. Brain scans of 8-to-10-year-olds showed an increase in the quality of their white matter, the brain tissue which carries signals through the nervous system so information can be processed.
This could be because focused reading causes a significant spike in blood flow to parts of the brain used for complex tasks. And reading's benefits only build from there, making us better writers, exercising our memory and expanding knowledge of words themselves.
And starting out with a great vocabulary gives children a leg up. Their vocabulary stays at a higher level than their classmates' as they get older. As we know from other research, students who are seen as exceptional in school get more positive feedback from teachers and better in-class opportunities.
It matters what you read, too.
Fiction stimulates the brain by triggering real life sensations. The New York Times writes, "Words like 'lavender,' 'cinnamon,' and 'soap,'" for example, elicit a response not only from the language-processing areas of our brains, but also those devoted to dealing with smells." The same goes for when we read a phrase like "John kicked the ball." When it’s an action, brain scans reveal activity in our motor cortex.
In 2018, 24 percent of adults told Pew Research they hadn't read a book in the past year. But it's not just kids who need to read.
One study suggests reading and other mentally challenging activities can help protect from memory decline, offsetting or delaying some effects of Alzheimer's and dementia.
Of course, we all know people who are smart, but maybe not "book" smart.
Some excel in "fluid" intelligence, detecting patterns and solving problems. Then there's emotional intelligence: sensing and responding to other people's feelings. Turns out, reading also helps improve both of those.
Psychologists tested people's ability to do things like read faces and identify emotions in others. The ones who read fiction did significantly better than people who read non-fiction or didn't read at all. Why? One scientist says: "The same psychological processes are used to navigate fiction and real relationships. Fiction is not just a simulator of a social experience, it is a social experience."