When discussing reading, I am not talking about literacy per se – although there are some that would argue even this has been eroded throughout the modern era – but more the ability to deeply engage in the subject matter that is being read.
It is not only the enjoyment of such immersion in books or the like that is under threat, but also the brain benefits.
In his recent popular book, Stolen Focus, writer Johann Hari dedicates a whole chapter to the impact of the decline in deep reading upon our collective ability to pay attention. This cognitive skill, just like any other, benefits from practice, and suffers when it is neglected.
In a world where we are rewarded for quickly shifting from one thing to another (think Facebook and the like), we are equally dissuaded from spending too much time considering what we read.
But how else does reading stretch the brain, and why is it important?
Well, it certainly involves memory, including working memory. Holding one part of a book’s storyline in mind as you are directed elsewhere by the author, is necessary to fully understand the narrative flow. Recalling the details of characters and preceding events, and how they all relate to each other is also important to derive the most enjoyment from the text.
Then, of course, there is the language element, being reminded of the meaning of words and how they fit together, and potentially being introduced to new and unusual ones. These things add to the richness of our lives and allow glimpses into the minds of others.
Diversity of experience, whether it be directly with other people or through their literary creations, is a key component of keeping the brain healthy.
The wonderful thing about reading is that you are not consciously trying to use your brain. The cognitive benefits are purely a by-product.
The main point of what you are doing is enjoyment (and edification, depending on what you are reading I suppose!).
So, can reading protect the brain against diseases that may lead to dementia?
Like so many interventions, it is difficult to say conclusively, but if you are truly reading deeply, it comes under the banner of a process known as complex mental activity.
This is a wordy term that basically means anything that the brain finds challenging. Most experts would agree that this type of activity, if repeated over time, may help you function at a higher level despite having physical damage to your brain – such as that caused by amyloid and tau, proteins intimately associated with Alzheimer’s Disease.
Research using functional scans (looking at real-time activity) has shown that reading activates multiple areas of the brain, and we also know that the amount of the brain’s gray matter also increases in response to activities such as reading.
These are unarguably of benefit for your brain.
My only concern about reading is that it is generally a very sedentary activity and is also largely a solitary one. I do know certain people who read while they are on a treadmill, but they are the exception.
Although quiet time and being alone have their own benefits, it is important not to forget that we are social creatures and that we are also designed to move regularly.
The brain benefits of curling up with a book are likely to be eclipsed if we neglect our physical health and prioritise reading over meaningful social contact with others.
Kailas Roberts is a psychogeriatrician and author of Mind your brain The Essential Australian Guide to Dementia now available at all good bookstores and online. Visit yourbraininmind.com or