Thursday, February 02, 2012

Reading for the Health of It

I'd like to share some exciting news...

I am speaking this afternoon (as part of my regular day job) at the Ontario Library Association Super Conference on "Reading for the Health of It". This is a subject I love to talk about; there is so much research to support the health benefits and I always love giving people even more reasons to read! I'd like to share a few highlights of my presentation with all of my blog readers so that you can also discover some of the key health benefits that arise from the simple act of reading.

1. Physical Health

The obvious physical health benefit of reading is in its power to strengthen and develop our brain. As we read we create new neural connections and pathways; our brain literally expands. Having higher numbers of neural pathways helps us to ward off the effects of brain diseases like Alzheimer's or dementia, or to recover from traumatic brain injuries. The brain has more options to rewire itself to keep us symptomless for longer in the case of these situations.
But reading also benefits us physiologically in a number of ways. Reciting certain types of poetry can benefit our blood pressure, as I've written about previously. And reading has been shown to be one of the best and quickest ways to experience stress relief and relaxation. Reading can benefit our immune response as well.

2. Mental Health

More than just our physical brain, however, reading supports our mental health. The psychology of reading is a key area of study right now, with a great number of researchers located in Canada (with a wonderful website, Reading in groups is one method to combat depression or social isolation, with studies showing that the act of reading results in some of the same benefits as medication can give a person. And a book serves as a kind of cheap virtual reality machine: parts of the brain that light up while reading about an activity are the same parts that light up when a person is actually performing that activity.

3. Emotional/Social Health

One of the biggest effects of reading lies in the emotional, or social, realm: reading about other lives and experiencing life through another perspective builds empathy. Empathy is the key to building a society that is cohesive and supportive for all its citizens.

Literature gives us one of the only ways that we can enter another person's mind and see through their eyes, have access to their thoughts, and truly experience their perceptions. Reading a novel gives us a way to experience unfamiliar situations or to find others who've had the same difficulties as we have and to learn how they've dealt with them. A book can give us the words to name our experience, and in this way, make it easier to comprehend and communicate. This is the principle behind bibliotherapy, which is part of what I do over at my business, Four Rooms, and which I've also talked about previously.

4. Spiritual Health

It may seem strange to think of reading as benefitting us spiritually. But the process of reading itself, that reaching out which we must do to encounter another, separate and distant mind -- that of the writer -- can be considered a spiritual process. That mind can never be fully known, but we can encounter it and strive to get outside ourselves briefly. Spiritual disciplines like our capacity for attention, our ability to listen, or our mental organization and alertness are also mirrored in reading; we build these strengths when we read narrative fiction.

So, in these ways reading interacts with all aspects of health and is measurably a healthy practice! There are many more examples of how it can benefit us and different areas to talk about, but, I am just highlighting some of the ones I find most fascinating -- I don't think you want to read a whole paper about the topic ;) So the next time someone tries to make you feel guilty about reading instead of exercising, just think of how you are benefitting your health in a different way, and keep on with your novel!


  1. Congratulations! That is very exciting! I hope you get a big crowd in your session!

  2. Yes, congratulations! May you have lots of good bookish discussions to follow as well.

    I recently read Karen Armstrong's Short History of Mythology and her final segment discusses the role that reading fiction can play in filling the gap that we have in this era in which there is no room for traditional mythology, so I can see what you mean in terms of it contributing to spiritual health, too. Interesting!

  3. Stefanie - thanks! we did get a bigger crowd than expected (64!) So it was really fun

    BIP - thanks! There was so much bookish chat at this conference, I feel like I got my reading/reviewing mojo back :) There is a real place for narrative & storytelling in our spiritual lives, I agree. I'm looking up the book you've mentioned as soon as I get home, too!

  4. Love this post, thanks! And congrats on the speaking gig. Excellent subject.

  5. Carin - thanks! I do love this subject ;)


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