I try to split my fiction and non-fiction reading evenly. Or 75%-25%. Reading a good non-fiction is like sitting down and having a conversation with a professor, but sometimes I’d really rather lose myself in a novel. Still, if I’m worried about learning or self-improvement, then I shouldn’t hesitate to pick up a fiction book. It turns out, fiction reading can do a lot for us. Not only is it fun (which is important!!), but it expands vocabulary, lowers stress levels in the body, keeps the mind sharp, is positively correlated with social and verbal skills, and is linked with empathy. Everyone knows that reading is good for you, and I decided to find the data to back it up.
Reading is one of the strongest indicators of vocabulary size. In a really neat project by the Test Your Vocab folks, it was established that fiction reading is the best predictor of vocabulary size. The link is so strong that there would be a 2,000 word vocabulary increase between every step up in category quantifying amount of fiction read. People who read fiction “somewhat” would have about 2,000 more words in their vocabulary then those who read fiction “not much”, and so on.
Take the vocabulary test!
Life would be so much better if a person could cut their stress by 17/25 in only six minutes. Lucky for us, we can! Reading is one of the quickest and most effective ways to bring stress levels down in the body. An oft-cited study done at the University of Sussex in 2009 found that reading can reduce stress by up to 68%.
Reducing stress can be beneficial to everyone. Not only will it make you as a person feel better, but everyone around you will be pleased when loosen up your tight bum muscles and remember to smile a bit. Don’t reduce stress just for yourself; do it for those around you. Read a book.
Keeps Mind Sharp
There is growing evidence that cognitive activities throughout life and especially for older folks can stave off cognitive decline associated with aging. In the study done by Wilson et al. (2013) the cognitive activities included reading books, visiting a library, and writing letters. They all involved seeking or processing information. Utilizing information the way the brain does during reading is associated with keeping the mind performing well. This particular study is one of the first (I believe) to firmly link lifetime cognitive activity with late-life functioning, but it gives a strong argument to picking up a book now.
Social and Verbal Skills
Are all bookworms nerds? It’s easy to associate book reading with poor social skills, but it turns out the kinds of books being read matters. In a study by Mar, Raymond A.; Oatley; Hirsh; Paz; and Peterson, Non-fiction reading, possibly the nerdiest of book ventures, was correlated negatively with social ability. In contrast, fiction reading was correlated positively with social ability. Reading tends to be linked with improved verbal and language skills, and there is some evidence that suggests fiction reading may be an even better tool to improve verbal skills (Raymond A. Mar & Marina Rain, 2015).
Fiction seems to be a big factor in social skills because while the act of reading is solitary, narrative stories engage the social and emotional parts of the brain similarly to interacting with others. The brain goes through all the feelings and processes of emoting and relating to the stories being told, much like holding a conversation. Reading overall has a huge impact on verbal skills, but it’s a bit harder to distinguish how much of an edge fiction has over non-genre specific reading.
Remember how reading fiction was linked with social and verbal skills? The emotional experience of internalizing stories that exercises social skills seems to help build and broaden empathy as well. When a person becomes “transported” by becoming engrossed in a book, the brain places the reader into the situation of the characters in the story. It is guess that people who read fiction practice being empathetic and so strengthen their empathetic response. There are some drawbacks to the research on this topic though, and I will explore the link between reading and empathy in another post.
One drawback to a lot of studies covering fiction reading as opposed to reading overall is that readers tend to read a lot of whatever is at hand. These studies are often conducted using print exposure and then being adjusted for age, education, income, etc. Print exposure is a method to find out how much a participant reads by asking them which authors they recognize. Reading fiction is highly correlated with reading non-fiction. This makes it difficult to tell how much effect is due to fiction alone. However, there is compelling evidence to not only read, but to read fiction. Have a little fun.
Bal PM, Veltkamp M (2013) How Does Fiction Reading Influence Empathy? An Experimental Investigation on the Role of Emotional Transportation. PLoS ONE 8(1): e55341. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0055341
Raymond A. Mar & Marina Rain (2015) Narrative Fiction and Expository Nonfiction Differentially Predict Verbal Ability, Scientific Studies of Reading, 19:6, 419-433, DOI: 10.1080/10888438.2015.1069296. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/10888438.2015.1069296
“Reading habits”. Test your vocab: the blog. 09 May 2013. Accessed July 2016. http://testyourvocab.com/blog/2013-05-09-Reading-habits
“Reading reduces stress levels”. Kumon. 14 August, 2012. Accessed July 2016. http://www.kumon.co.uk/blog/reading-reduces-stress-levels/
Robert S. Wilson, Robert S. PhD, Patricia A. Boyle, PhD, Lei Yu, PhD, Lisa L. Barnes, PhD, Julie A. Schneider, MD, and David A. Bennett, MD. “Life-span cognitive activity, neuropathologic burden, and cognitive aging”. Neurology. 2013 Jul 23; 81(4): 314–321. doi: 10.1212/WNL.0b013e31829c5e8a. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3772831/