Opinion | Scientifically speaking, go read a book

By Lynnette Tibbott, Senior Staff Columnist

Throughout history, humans developed an interest in the written word — from ancient Egyptians crafting “pages” made of papyrus to modern day Kindles. 

There’s no denying the human affinity for stories and storytelling. The Chauvet cave in France depicts the world’s oldest example of storytelling. Through time, our story-sharing morphed into more sophisticated and widespread mediums, such as the Library of Alexandria in Egypt

Humans are fascinated by a story’s structure, the characters and their conflicts. We’re able to experience emotion that’s unlike our own, in situations that we feel free to explore. Often, these imaginary situations are critical to our brain’s development as we age.  

Reading books not only shaped me as a person, but it drove me to think critically about the way I approach information sharing. This skill helped me in different aspects of my life. From attention to detail to precise communication, reading grew my ability to analyze and understand nuances in seemingly unrelated fields, like chemistry. 

When you read a book, your prefrontal cortex and amygdala become the two most active parts of your brain. The prefrontal cortex is responsible for complex cognitive and social behavior, personality expression and decision making. The amygdala’s role is processing threatening stimuli, detecting threats and responding to these frightening situations. 

Your prefrontal cortex inputs and processes the information you’re reading, while the amygdala stores some of the information in your long-term memory, depending on the emotion you feel while reading. When combined, this process is beneficial to your learning and even your happiness. 

The “Angel’s Cocktail” is a term coined to explain the phenomena of your body releasing dopamine, oxytocin and endorphins at the same time. This biological effect can happen to your body when you read an enjoyable, engaging book.  A spike in dopamine can improve your focus, motivation and memory. Oxytocin promotes generosity and trust, which can lead to strong emotional bonds within a story. Endorphins inspire creativity, relaxation and focus. These chemicals also reduce stress, and may even help alleviate symptoms of depression, grief and trauma.

The more you read, the more you transform your mind. Based on MRI scans, reading encourages the complex signals and networks in your brain to grow stronger and improve efficiency. These scans also showed that reading increases physical health. 

During reading, and even for days after, the brain connectivity in the somatosensory complex is heightened. The somatosensory complex is an area of the brain where information from senses of touch are processed. The somatosensory complex also helps us judge size, distance and spatial awareness. Like the philosopher Descartes said — “I think therefore I am” — your brain connectivity follows a similar pattern with thinking about doing an activity and actually performing it. 

Reading tricks the brain into thinking we’re performing the tasks in the book even when we’re not. For example, if you think about playing soccer, the same neurons in your brain that turn on when you play soccer become active. A similar philosophy applies to reading books.

Reading also promotes our social skills. Long-term readers of literary fiction are better able to sympathize and process the emotions and beliefs of others. Books allow us to experience difficult social interactions through a different lens, which shows us appropriate and inappropriate ways to handle conflict. For children, this is especially important. Yet readers of all ages can experience a situation in the safety of a book that teaches us to think critically about what we would do in a given scenario.

An obvious aspect of reading is that it improves your vocabulary. In turn, an improved vocabulary can facilitate your ability to communicate. Not only can communication help you accurately describe and express your emotions in personal relationships, but it may even set you ahead in your next job interview

It seems that our ability to read is dying. The internet allows us to share information faster than ever, but we’ve become picky. There’s an inverse relationship between the internet and concentration. The more time you spend online, the lower your concentration levels drop. We’re so used to clicking away from anything that doesn’t pique our interest, and we’re quick to find another piece of information that’s more “exciting.” 

It may sound traditional, but you should put down your phone and pick up a book. Even if you don’t want to or if it’s hard to fit into your schedule, reading is perhaps the most simple way you can prioritize your health. 

Lynnette Tibbott primarily writes about topics in the sciences and humanities. Write to her at [email protected].