Reading: The Ultimate Mental Workout

By Jeff Watson


Recently, there has been an increased focus on “mental workouts” as part of the holistic approach to fitness. And while we’ve known for some time the therapeutic and creative benefits of practices such as writing and art, many may not know that reading is equally beneficial.

Unfortunately, Americans are reading less and less. According to Pew Researchers, we’re picking up books at a slower pace and access to e-books hasn’t done anything to encourage sustained reading (let alone more reading).

According to researchers, and as reported in Psychology Today, reading fiction especially helps to optimize brain function and productivity. It immerses us in a universe where our brains dream up the actual images from the text we consume. It’s an incredibly powerful mental workout that nourishes our creativity, and yet we’re craving visual, screen entertainment more than ever.

What does that mean for the go-to mental workout we’ve depended on for so long?

A Farewell to Text?

According to a recent report by Hubspot on visual content marketing for 2017, people remember information with an image at the rate of 65 percent three days after exposure. If they “just” hear information, the rate drops to 10 percent.

It’s also estimated that by the end of the year, video content will make up 74 percent of internet traffic and 80 percent by 2018. Sadly, four times as many survey respondents would rather watch a video about a product than read about it, and the vast majority of marketers say video imagery is a priority, gets a better response, and is on their agenda for the coming year.

In other words, in the digital era and age of instant gratification, consumers are simply used to having their senses overwhelmed. Some research is promising, such as the fact that imagery can help people remember details days after exposure. However, at what cost? Reading, particularly fiction, has long challenged people to create worlds and entertainment for themselves.

Imagine how upset you were the last time a book you loved was turned into a film—and the characters, setting or other details were nothing like what you imagined. That’s just one element within the cry of, “The movie is never as good as the book.” While there are certainly other variants at play, there’s also the fact that nothing compares to our own imagination. When we’re able to be creative and make a world based on an outline by a skilled writer, ready-made complementary imagery just can’t compare.

Remembering the Creative Benefits of the Book

Novels tend to engross us, and researchers found that fiction encourages not just creativity but empathy. According to scientists at Emory University, and revealed in the journal Brain Connectivity, reading fiction is akin to utilizing visualization when improving muscle memory for sports players. That might play a role in why there’s always more fiction purchased than non-fiction books. Fiction also allows for escapism, which is exactly what many people are chasing (often unsuccessfully) when spending numerous hours in front of a screen playing a video game, on social media, or otherwise overwhelming their senses.

The Pew Internet and American Life Project found that 42 percent of college graduates never read a book after finishing their studies. The same study found that those who do like to read fiction are encouraged by personal enrichment. “I love being exposed to ideas and being able to experience so many times, places, and events,” said one respondent in the now often-quoted research findings. Living vicariously through another person was another big draw.

While some of these findings can be unnerving, you’re in control of whether to indulge in this mental workout or not. Just like the best workouts, it doesn’t feel like one at all. As 2017 just begins, challenge yourself to read a certain number of books this year. It’s the easiest workout you’ll ever enjoy.


Image by Unsplash (Pixabay)