Reading doesn’t just cram information into your brain. It changes how your brain works.
We all know reading can teach you facts, and knowing the right thing at the right time helps you be more successful. But is that the entire reason just about every smart, accomplished person you can think of, from Bill Gates to Barack Obama, credits much of their success to their obsessive reading?
Not according to neuroscience. Reading, science shows, doesn’t just fill your brain with information; it actually changes the way your brain works for the better as well.
The short- and long-term effects of reading on the brain.
This can be short term. Different experts disagree on some of the finer details, but a growing body of scientific literature shows that reading is basically an empathy workout. By nudging us to take the perspective of characters very different from ourselves, it boosts our EQ. This effect can literally be seen in your brain waves when you read. If a character in your book is playing tennis, areas of your brain that would light up if you were physically out there on the court yourself are activated.
Another line of research shows that deep reading, the kind that happens when you curl up with a great book for an extended period of time, also builds up our ability to focus and grasp complex ideas. Studies show that the less you really read (skim reading from your phone doesn’t count), the more these essential abilities wither.
But what about the long-term? What does all that time spent mastering your letters as an elementary school student do to your brain? A recent article by The WEIRDest People in the World author and Harvard professor Joseph Henrich sums up the answer to these questions nicely.
The whole piece offers an account of how the Protestant reformation led to a huge increase in literacy rates. You don’t have to care about the historical details (the research is super interesting if you do) to find Henrich’s explanation of how learning to read permanently rewires our brains fascinating:
This renovation has left you with a specialized area in your left ventral occipital temporal region, shifted facial recognition into your right hemisphere, reduced your inclination toward holistic visual processing, increased your verbal memory, and thickened your corpus callosum, which is the information highway that connects the left and right hemispheres of your brain.
No one is going to quiz you on brain anatomy, so you probably don’t need to memorize the specifics here. But the overarching picture is worth remembering.
Reading isn’t just a way to cram facts into your brain. It’s a way to rewire how your brain works in general. It strengthens your ability to imagine alternative paths, remember details, picture detailed scenes, and think through complex problems. In short, reading makes you not just more knowledgeable, but also functionally smarter. Which is why the only thing that everyone you admire can agree on is that you should read more.