Does Reading Affect Your Mental Health?

January 21, 2016
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For centuries artists, authors, and literary enthusiasts have boasted the potential of books. They claim literature improves the mind, imparts wisdom, and can soothe the soul. In the twenty-first century, is science turning ancient opinion into hard fact? 

Selection of books on a table

How Does Reading Affect Your Brain?

In recent years, bibliotherapy has gained momentum as a popular form of therapy. People with mental ill health such as mild to moderate depression and anxiety can use bibliotherapy methods to improve their mood and thoughts.

The NHS undertook a series of research trials through The Reading Agency to discover works of literature that could boost mental health. They compiled a list of helpful books and started to prescribe these, alongside traditional treatment, to alleviate symptoms of depression and to help those living with or caring for people with dementia.

Multiple studies by cognitive psychologists determined that bibliotherapy on its own can provide long-lasting help for some patients with mild depression. This is because the act of reading encourages mindfulness. And it helps patients to create and maintain positive change. The content of the book and its themes and issues can also help patients to navigate the tumultuous seas of anxiety, loneliness, and depression.

Benefits of a Reading Habit

The Journal of Consciousness Studies revealed that a healthy and varied dose of poetry and prose (that’s fiction) can provide a rigorous workout to both the left and right hemispheres.

A woman choosing poetry in a bookshop

The left hemisphere is the logical side of the brain, associated with words, numbers, linearity, sequence, and analysis. This is the side of the brain engaged when you read prose fiction.

The right hemisphere is the creative region, associated with creativity, imagination, rhythm, spatial awareness, insight, daydreaming, and intuition. Poetry activates this, and when it does, you engage in a subtle and complicated workout.

Importance of Brain Health

Reading fiction plays a crucial role in preventing cognitive ageing (which is the natural decline in cognitive processing as we age).

Keeping the brain fighting fit through prose and poetry also decreases the chances of developing dementia.

According to research published in the Neurology Journal, those who regularly read had a 32% lower rate of decline than those who did not.

Why else? Well, reading is a great de-stressor.

Someone looking through literature in a bookshop

Mindlab International sought to understand which common hobbies could aid relaxation best. Surprise, surprise, reading came out on top; reading managed to effectively lower participant stress levels by up to 68%.

Positive Effects of Reading Books

Multiple studies have discovered that reading increases social awareness and empathy.  And it can even reduce prejudice.

A 2013 peer-reviewed study by two academics discovered that when readers were transported by a book, they became more empathetic.

Another study published in the journal Science revealed that reading literary fiction improved the ability to understand the perspectives, beliefs, and views of other people.

This is because when we read evocative fiction, we experience emotions, mental states, and scenarios vicariously.

Studies reveal that even though it’s not us actually experiencing them, we’re able to learn indirectly from them without ever having to experience the thing that’s happening ourselves.


PLOS One (a scientific journal) reported that when you read fiction your brain displays the same neurological patterns that happen when you go through that same experience in reality.

Theoretically then, after reading Jane Eyre, I might wisely know that it’s important to check every room of the house before trusting that my fiancé doesn’t have another wife locked in the attic.

Further Resources:

Evidently, reading has a lot of benefits. If I’ve convinced you to get reading, the resources below can help you find a book for any mood.

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