How Reading Changes the Brain and Benefits Mental Health

A week after International Book and Copyright Day, we'd like to show you 7 ways reading strengthens your mental health. You'll be amazed by the fantastic benefits of reading!
How Reading Changes the Brain and Benefits Mental Health

Last update: 07 July, 2022

Did you know that reading benefits mental health?

Every April 23, International Book and Copyright Day is celebrated around the world. UNESCO promoted the celebration in 1995 in honor of the death of Miguel de Cervantes and William Shakespeare. Other important authors such as Inca Garcilaso de la Vega, Vladimir Nabokov, Josep Pla, and William Wordsworth were also born or died on that day.

For 2022, UNESCO selected Guadalajara (Mexico) as the World Book Capital. This title has been awarded since 2001 and designated cities are responsible for carrying out activities to promote books and reading.

As part of the 2022 International Book and Copyright Day campaign to encourage interest in books, activities focus on explaining how reading benefits mental health. Bearing this recent holiday in mind, let’s take a look at some of the ways that reading benefits our mental health.

7 ways reading benefits mental health

As Unesco points out, the main objective of International Book and Copyright Day 2022 is to promote the habit of reading among children. The intention is not trivial, since there are many ways in which reading benefits mental health. Despite this, interest in books has been lost among the younger generations, and state plans and programs sometimes reinforce these attitudes.

Never before in the history of mankind has it been so easy to access books and learn to read. Regardless of the shortcomings, education has become universalized as a right and a few simple clicks on a screen give access to thousands and thousands of titles on literature, philosophy, psychology, science, and so on.

Here are 7 ways in which reading benefits mental health.

Leer cambia el cerebro y beneficia la salud mental
It’s believed that regular reading can minimize the risk of degenerative brain diseases, such as Alzheimer’s.

1. Reading strengthens our overall mental health

For decades, experts have been using reading as a complement to primary therapy to treat or control certain mental health disorders, such as anxiety or depression.

In fact, the word “bibliotherapy” is becoming increasingly popular, in the context of using books as a therapeutic resource. In children, it can be particularly useful, as there is evidence that reading has an impact on their self-esteem and psychological well-being.

Depression and anxiety statistics in the general population have reached worrying levels and have shown a particular growth among children and young people. Reading can be, therefore, a great ally in preventing or reducing these episodes. Undoubtedly, it’s a great reason to celebrate International Book and Copyright Day in style this 2022!

2. It can lengthen our lifespans

A study published in Social Science & Medicine in 2016 found that recurrent readers have a longer lifespan in contrast to those who are not in the habit of reading. In fact, experts found that the cognitive benefits translated into a survival advantage of up to 23 additional months compared to those who only occasionally read magazines and newspapers (and not books).

Through reading, you assimilate basic ideas and lessons that you can apply to reality. These can help you make life decisions, either to avoid certain problems or to take advantage of opportunities. All this has a direct impact on your integrity, your health, your psychological well-being, and your life in general. For this reason, reading can make you live longer.

We think you may also enjoy reading this article: The Doman Method to Teach Reading at an Early Age

3. Reading benefits mental health by promoting brain connectivity

Research published in 2018 in Acta Paediatrica found that brain connectivity increases in children who are avid readers.

In fact, the population studied, which was comprised of children between 8 and 12 years of age, developed increased brain connectivity in the cognitive, visual, and language control regions in the left hemisphere. The visual, language, and processing areas are thus strengthened in the face of the reading habit.

But that’s not all. Experts found in their research that just as brain connectivity is increased when reading books, it’s reduced when young people spend the same amount of time in front of a screen (computers, mobiles, tablets, and so on).

The contrast is notorious, so much so that specialists suggest reducing screen exposure time and replacing it with reading during this crucial stage of development.

4. Reading increases empathy

Increased empathy is perhaps one of the most under-recognized ways that reading benefits mental health. Experts have found that reading fiction books (in particular) changes our levels of empathy, and always in a positive way.

According to other researchers, this benefit translates into increased social development, improved interpersonal relationships, and greater commitment to others.

Empathy is defined as the ability to perceive the emotions and thoughts of others. The theory dictates that the reader connects with the ideals, behavior, and values of certain characters to such a level that he or she transports all these criteria to his or her reality. Reading can therefore make you more empathetic, both with yourself and others.

reading benefits mental health
Reading is an excellent way to reduce your stress levels.

5. It may prevent cognitive decline

Although there’s no conclusive evidence (partly because the scientific understanding of these conditions is still incomplete), there are indications that reading may strengthen the brain against cognitive decline. For example, experts have suggested that early-life cognitive activity (such as that achieved by reading) is associated with slower cognitive decline.

Other authors agree that reading is a type of mental exercise, one that can preserve and improve cognitive function in healthy adults. In this sense, and although more research needs to be done, reading can be a great ally in reducing the likelihood of developing dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, among other conditions.

6. It reduces your stress levels

There’s evidence that reading as a habit can reduce your stress levels. Its effects are comparable to those achieved through humor and yoga, and the reduction is achieved on average in just 30 minutes. Reading can be used as a way to calm stress levels, one that can also be consolidated as a short- and medium-term hobby.

7. Reading benefits mental health by promoting the development of critical thinking

Finally, reading is known to be a mediator of critical thinking. Critical thinking is a term that has been present in education programs around the world for decades.

Moreover, it’s part of the ideal of the citizens of the new generations. It refers to the ability to doubt the statements that are taken as true, questioning them on the basis of sound analysis.

Overall, although we’ve only pointed out 7 ways in which reading benefits mental health, it has become evident that it’s one of the best habits a person can practice.

The International Book and Copyright Day 2022 aims to create spaces for its promotion, where virtual channels have a very important place. Be sure to share your impressions and recommendations through social networks using the hashtags #WorldBookDay and #InternationalBookDay.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

  • Bal, P. M., & Veltkamp, M. How does fiction reading influence empathy? An experimental investigation on the role of emotional transportation. PloS one. 2013; 8(1): e55341.
  • Bavishi A, Slade MD, Levy BR. A chapter a day: Association of book reading with longevity. Soc Sci Med. 2016 Sep;164:44-48.
  • Boyes, M. E., Tebbutt, B., Preece, K. A., & Badcock, N. A. Relationships between reading ability and child mental health: Moderating effects of self‐esteem. Australian Psychologist. 2018; 53(2): 125-133.
  • Dowrick, C., Billington, J., Robinson, J., Hamer, A., & Williams, C. Get into Reading as an intervention for common mental health problems: exploring catalysts for change. Medical Humanities. 2012; 38(1): 15-20.
  • Horowitz-Kraus T, Hutton JS. Brain connectivity in children is increased by the time they spend reading books and decreased by the length of exposure to screen-based media. Acta Paediatr. 2018 Apr;107(4):685-693.
  • Koek, M., Janssen, T., Hakemulder, F., & Rijlaarsdam, G. Literary reading and critical thinking: Measuring students’ critical literary understanding in secondary education. Scientific Study of Literature. 2016; 6(2): 243-277.
  • McCreary, J. J., & Marchant, G. J. Reading and empathy. Reading Psychology. 2017; 38(2): 182-202.
  • Rizzolo, D., Zipp, G. P., Stiskal, D., & Simpkins, S. Stress management strategies for students: The immediate effects of yoga, humor, and reading on stress. Journal of College Teaching & Learning (TLC). 2009; 6(8).
  • Uchida S, Kawashima R. Reading and solving arithmetic problems improves cognitive functions of normal aged people: a randomized controlled study. Age (Dordr). 2008;30(1):21-29.
  • Wilson, R. S., Boyle, P. A., Yu, L., Barnes, L. L., Schneider, J. A., & Bennett, D. A. Life-span cognitive activity, neuropathologic burden, and cognitive aging. Neurology. 2013; 81(4): 314-321.
  • Organización Panamericana de la Salud. La pandemia por COVID-19 provoca un aumento del 25% en la prevalencia de la ansiedad y la depresión en todo el mundo.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.