Reading – a powerful antidote to our times

We’re told from childhood that reading is good for us. Neuroscientist Friederike Fabritius confirms that a simple book can make you more empathetic, improve your work performance and even fend off dementia. Reading can benefit our brains, our well-being and our relationships, according to neuroscientist, award-winning author and keynote speaker, Friederike Fabritius. She says that to gain these benefits it doesn’t matter so much what you read – popular thriller or philosophical tome – the most important thing is you enjoy it. 

However, in an age of social isolation marked by our increased dependence on screens to feel connected, not all mediums are created equal when it comes to bettering your brain. According to Fabritius, who trained at the Max Planck Institute for Brain Research, if you want to live smarter and happier, a physical book is by far the better way to invest your time than Netflix or social media. 

Bootcamp for your brain

“The act of deep reading gives your entire brain a workout,” says Fabritius. “From the areas related to vision to the grey matter that helps recognise objects and process the sound and the meaning of words, reading a book is the equivalent of a mental workout.” 

An antidote to all the things that split our focus in modern life, reading hones our ability to focus, building “resting state connectivity”. This means our brains are better at building new connections even when we’re not doing all that much – think bath-time ”Eureka!” moments or genius ideas as you stare out the window.

Furthermore, reading fiction, specifically, improves theory of mind – the capacity to view the world from someone else’s perspective. As a character goes on their journey, your brain accompanies them, responding almost as if you’re experiencing it too. As a global consultant to Fortune 500 executives, Fabritius likes to remind her clients of the importance of this kind of empathy when it comes to doing your job. 

“Many say they don’t have time for fiction. I say you need empathy to be a good parent, a good spouse and a good boss. The importance of this is often underestimated,” she says.

Interestingly, reading could also be amongst the cheapest, easiest and most efficient ways to keep dementia at bay. Studies show that people who frequently read for pleasure have younger brains – very much a ‘use it or lose it’ scenario, adds Fabritius.

Paper or screen, does it matter?

It’s well established that the endless dopamine hits from clickbait headlines and attention-grabbing notifications have made us addicted to our devices. Furthermore, the light from screens disrupts our melatonin levels, costing us quality sleep. It contributes to a vicious cycle, and the way our brains operate when we scroll, scan and surf the web actually breaks our focus rather than builds it. 

“Constantly switching between tasks is a drain on our cognitive resources. People who multitask make 50 per cent more mistakes and take 50 per cent longer to complete tasks,” says Fabritius. 

In fact, frequent multitasking actually shrinks a part of the brain called the anterior cingulate cortex, adds Fabritius. Far from being a skill, it inhibits our brain’s ability to focus, control emotions and make decisions. Another excellent reason to ditch the smartphone and devour a paperback instead!

An antidote to 2022?

So, from better sleep to better business, there are myriad reasons to rediscover reading. It’s also worth remembering that it’s one of the cheapest ways to make a change. Most people have access to a public library, and books can be shared and re-loved even across generations. Fabritius is quick to point out that even this has its neurological benefits. 

“Sharing a beloved book strengthens our sense of community and taps into our social brain at a time when connection has never been so important,” says the expert. 

So if this year has left you in need of a little respite, look no further than the humble book. Reading may be just the healthy addiction you need.

Interview: Sarah Hudson for Stora Enso–a-powerful-antidote-to-our-times