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Reading Can Save Your Life

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Reading Can Save Your Life

As I sat at home, listening to the Baroque station on my Echo and reading a book against a backsplash of mismatched antique books and current bestsellers, I looked at my hipster husband, who was lounging in his “reading chair” devouring a book of his own, and thought, “Are we bougie now?”

At the start of 2017, we decided to “change” our lifestyle. Cliché, I know, but we are no strangers to change. We shamelessly (and shamefully, to some who must deal with us) shape-shift, trying out new ways and styles of living, some traditional, others, not so much.

We had previously morphed into pseudo-hipsterdom when we left our mid-twenties and the East Coast behind. We ventured out West and took up residence in a small downtown with a burgeoning art scene and countless shops that boasted of artisanal, gourmet, craft or otherwise overly expensive items with vintage-style labels. The husband exchanged his slacks for dark-wash Levi’s, and I embraced a lifestyle that meshed downtown-chic with Wild West wanderlust.

All this to say, we’ve gone through our phases and “lifestyles,” carefully pulling what we like from each and wearing it like a Girl Scout, haphazardly stitching it onto a removable sash that we quickly hide in the event that someone cool comes around.

So, when we decided at the start of the year to embrace a true “reader’s” lifestyle, we went all in.

My entire day began to revolve around the idea of maximizing the opportunities for knowledge acquisition and this inherently meant that I would have to minimize the amount of wasted time

We’re avid readers as is. In fact, some of our favorite and most treasured possessions are books. We spend at least part of every weekend at the bookstore, and almost every vacation in between the bookshelves of some small dusty bookstore. Still, we realized we just weren’t reading enough.

We set independent goals for how many books we were going to read in the year. I decided to go for one a week. We carved out time every day to read. No excuses. We made lists of books we wanted to read, starting with ones on our bookshelf that we hadn’t gotten to. This was not an exercise in just reading on occasion or finishing a book or two. We had committed to establishing a home where a book in hand was an expectation.

It’s one thing, I realized, to read avidly, and another thing entirely to “be a reader.” I read incessantly for academic purposes, but I wasn’t living as a reader. I was reading for a purposeful end, looking for some information to serve me in some way or another.

Now, I was reading differently. It wasn’t a matter of “reading for pleasure” either. I was reading to read. Reading was not a means of relaxation; it was quickly becoming a necessity, done as part of my daily routine, like eating or sleeping. A day without reading a portion of a book was a day incomplete.

This changed my life.

My entire day began to revolve around the idea of maximizing the opportunities for knowledge acquisition and this inherently meant that I would have to minimize the amount of wasted time. I took breaks during work to read, not for relaxing or escape, but because the result of reading was always a reenergizing of my ability to communicate and analyze information. It was as though I was plugging myself in and recharging my brain.

A robot reading > Flickr/Katy Tresedder.

I started to wonder what exactly was happening. So, in the process of writing this piece, I researched and read numerous academic articles on the various factors that affect one’s ability to read and comprehend. There is no shortage of articles in the hard sciences talking about reading and cognition, or reading and brain development. However, I found it harder to find studies that provided some sort of comprehensive analysis of what reading can do for one’s brain and by extension, for one’s life. I assumed, and wrongfully so, that the positive benefits from reading largely came from the increase in knowledge acquisition from the content of the text, or at the very least, with the relaxing properties of the experience of escapism or disconnectedness that reading affords.

This was a reductive assumption at best. The benefits of reading are far greater than simple knowledge acquisition. In fact, they are scientifically rooted in the increased ability of a reader to interact with the outside world and manage one’s personal life in ways that are more productive.

As it turns out, studies have shown that individuals who read regularly have an easier time relating to individuals who are not like them, and coping with situations that are difficult or challenging. They are also better able to make decisions, prioritize tasks and plan. Readers have also been found to have lower levels of feelings of stress and depression than nonreaders. In fact, some studies have shown that readers are more likely to have a higher satisfaction with their lives than those who do not read.

Scientists at Emory University discovered that reading an exciting book changes the way brain circuits connect, and that the heightened connectivity lasts up to five days after the reading takes place.

This explained a lot. I felt smarter, not because I had retained everything that I had read, but because, scientifically, my brain was functioning at a higher or heightened capacity.

The immediate benefits of committing to a reader’s lifestyle are enough motivation for me to continue

As a writer, it proved to be an invaluable decision. Reading increased my ability to write and reenergized my ability (and willingness) to problem solve. Constant and unrelenting exposure to new thoughts, new styles of writing, new opinions, conversations and narratives enhanced the spectrum by which I was able to express my own.

It wasn’t about the information or practical exposure to the written word, but rather the cognitive and neurological reaction to the routine practice of reading.

Apparently, this type of exercising of the brain not only helps me now, but may also protect my brain as I get older. According to a study published in the journal of the American Academy of Neurology, a lifetime of reading resulted in slower memory decline. Among nonreaders with infrequent mental activity, the rate of decline was 48% faster than average. However, a study published in the journal of Social Science and Medicine found that of individuals who were ages 50 and older, those who read books lived almost two years longer than those who did not read books.

So, what if I just stuck to reading articles? I have certainly read my share in my professional and academic lives. Is all this book-reading necessary?

According to three Yale scientists, it kind of is.

“We found that reading books provided a greater benefit than reading newspapers or magazines. We uncovered that this effect is likely because books engage the reader’s mind more — providing more cognitive benefit, and therefore increasing the lifespan,” Avni Bavishi wrote in The Guardian.

The researchers discovered two distinct cognitive processes in their study. Books create a “survival advantage.” Not only do books encourage an immersive process but they also encourage cognitive engagement when the reader connects information from the book with real-world application and further questions the material ascertained in the reading. Additionally, reading books encourages the development of empathy and emotional intelligence as well as improving social perception. These cognitive tools have the potential to increase survival advantage. According to their study, the same effects do not occur through the reading of newspapers or magazines.

The immediate benefits of committing to a reader’s lifestyle are enough motivation for me to continue. However, considering the scientific research, should I need a little greater boost in motivation, I’ll simply remind myself that if I stop reading, it could actually kill me. That’s what the scientists said, right? That argument will work very well the next time I’m interrupted from a comfortable engagement in some captivating text.

If you need an excuse to read, consider that it is potentially instantly boosting your brain power (and charging it for almost a full week, like you’re some sort of cyborg), and adding years to your life.

At the start of the year and my new “reader’s lifestyle,” I began keeping track of all the books I have read. While that had been a great and rewarding exercise in itself, I am beginning to think that the true measure of this change is in the things I have accomplished while not reading. I understand now that the time and energy I have spent reading has not simply transported me somewhere else for a few moments of each day, but has transformed me in every moment of every day. The lifestyle is not defined by the act of reading, but by its impact.

*Image: Children reading. Flickr/ThomasLife.

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