A growing body of research in the sciences is discovering what bookworms, 9th-grade English teachers and underemployed liberal arts majors have known for ages: reading is really, really good for you. Besides making you an empathetic, sexy, cultured and all around more interesting human being, reading apparently provides definite benefits to your mental health, sharpening the mind as it ages.
A study released in Neurology found that reading and similar activities reduced the rate of cognitive decline in dementia patients. Researchers examined the brains of 294 patients post-mortem and found a slower rate of decline in patients who reported more early-life and late-life cognitive activity, such as reading, writing and playing games.
"The study showed that mentally active patients — ones who read and wrote regularly — declined at a significantly slower rate than those who had an average amount of activity," notes NPR's Annalisa Quinn.
Other studies have found that the more immediate benefits of reading include an increased tolerance for uncertainty. Psychologists at the University of Toronto, for example, had participants read either a short story or a non-fiction article, then tested their tolerance for uncertainty. Participants who read the short stories were less likely to need cognitive closure, "a need to reach a quick conclusion in decision-making and an aversion to ambiguity and confusion." The fiction readers, especially those who claimed to be avid readers, were better able to think creatively and not get tied down to one specific idea.
English scholar Natalie Phillips and Stanford neurobiologists and radiologists teamed up in a rare but beautiful interdisciplinary union to find out if reading has any benefits beyond being a good way to pass the time. Participants read a chapter of Jane Austen's Mansfield Park—first in a leisurely fashion, then analytically—while an fMRI machine scanned their brain functions. The team found that close reading and pleasure reading increased blood flow to different areas of the brain. The brain's reaction to close reading implied that "paying attention to literary texts requires the coordination of multiple complex cognitive functions." In other words, close reading, which results in a lot of rambling undergraduate theses, also exercises underworked regions of the brain.
With all that in mind, go forth and read freely. Your future self, your current self and everyone who has to deal with you on a regular basis will be glad you did.