Books and the Brain: The Social and Emotional Benefits of Reading
In todays fast-paced smartphone society, social and emotional wellbeing has risen to the forefront of many peoples minds. We face constant pressure to showcase our lives glamorously on social media, maintain instant communication, and scroll through the stimulus overload on our phones. The screen time reports on my phone serve as a stark reminder that I am just as susceptible. In a society like ours, do people make time to slow down and settle into a good book? In terms of social and emotional health, the benefits of reading could be just the cup of tea you need.
Library historian Dr. Weigand (2016) defends the social and emotional benefits of reading stories, stating:
History of reading scholars have clearly demonstrated the capacity of commonplace stories to stimulate reader imagination, construct community through shared meaning, and demonstrate moral achievementReaders move into and out of the text, and thus appropriate meaning relevant to their own livesThe act of reading stories becomes dependably pleasurable, empowering, intellectually stimulating, and socially bonding.
I think Dr. Weigand makes a fair case. The act of reading has always been a pleasurable experience for me. My thoughts slow down, and I enter a calm, meditative state. Temporarily releasing my own worries, I immerse myself in a story. Reading new books or settling into the comfort of rereading old favorites both bring forth this zen state of mind. Living vicariously, I laugh at the funny parts, tear up at the sad ones, and sigh at the heartfelt moments.
Enjoying this relaxed state of being makes up just one of many benefits my mind absorbs from reading. My imagination, for example, has flourished under the spell of books. Everyday objects suddenly began having stories of their own. A yellow scarf in my hands became a sunbeam plucked out of the sky, woven into a cape of eternal warmth and light. Once I became a reader, inspiration for my own stories began blooming everywhere. I started filling notebooks with my own words as readily as I was reading them.
I think the benefits of imagination go beyond the captivating worlds we escape into when we read. Imagination isnt just for fantasy writers; its for anyone looking for ways to make the world a little bit better each day.
Another perk to reading that Dr. Weigand mentions revolves around navigating the social world. Lets face itsocial interactions can be difficult. I cant text myself out of every situation, even on those days Id rather curl up under my coziest blanket and watch Amazon Prime instead of having to talk to people.
Like a sea sponge, I have soaked up life advice from reading. Reading stories has taught me that if Im going to write love letters To All the Boys Ive Loved Before, I shouldnt address the envelopes (or maybe I should?). On a more serious note, reading has taught me how to be a good friend and nurtured my empathy.
For me, one of the most powerful social and emotional benefits Weignand touches upon involves feeling connected to a community through shared experiences. Reading has helped me realize that Im not alone in how I feel about something. As Beth OLearys protagonist in The Flatshare began opening up about the emotionally abusive relationship she had been in, I untangled some of my own feelings from an emotionally abusive relationship Id left.
Elizabeth Acevedos With the Fire on High comforted me not only with tasty recipes (who isnt a stress baker these days?), but with the reassurance that if Emoni can bravely and confidently face the challenges of single motherhood than so can I. To not feel alone in this great human experience gives me a peace of mind that is hard to put into words.
Along with fictional characters, reading also links me to people in real life. The bonding my son and I feel as we share a story together and choose just one more (hundredth) book, fills my heart with love and contentment. I delight in feeling part of a community of bibliophiles who enjoy stories togetherfrom Book Riot, Goodreads, fandoms, book clubs, and chatting about books with friends. This gives me all the feels that come when you know youve found your people. If youve read this far, I hope you feel that way too.
Stories really do impact us in powerful ways. So next time you see that screen time report, try to carve a chunk of time out for reading. Your mind may thank you for it.