Why Reading is Such a Good Workout for the Brain

4 min read
9 May 2019

You probably read things all day long. Reports, emails, news articles, research--some or all of these likely cross your desk (or computer). But, do you take the time to indulge your curiosity and read fiction? To read for fun?

To put yourself into someone else’s mind? If no, you’re doing your own brain a disservice. It’s time to discover why reading is so good for you. If yes, perfect! Find your next adventure!

During her TEDx talk “Why Reading Matters”, Rita Carter speaks about how important reading is for our brain health. Humans have had the spoken word for tens of thousands of years. But reading has only been around for 5,000 years or so, and most people didn’t read until about a hundred years ago. While we have to read things to function at work, reading fiction, or stories that take you away to another place or those that put you in someone else’s mind, can change your brain.

Neuroscience supports the idea that reading fiction is probably the most important type of reading. To explain her idea, Carter uses a baby as an example. Babies pick up on language automatically, if they are able to hear it and be around it. The most intelligent baby in the world won’t learn to read by spending a lifetime staring at a book. Our brains have evolved to master spoken language rather quickly, but written language is still something we must learn.

A brain that is speaking is fairly straightforward. The eyes pick up an image, send it to the proper area of the brain, our memories are jogged, the signal is sent to another part of the brain that handles language, and then a signal goes to the motor part of our brain so we can physically speak. It is more or less a straight path from identifying an object to verbalising the word for that object.

But when we read, your brain is doing much more work & connecting parts of the brain which aren’t always used. When we read about something happening to someone else, the areas of the brain which would be active for that person are also active in the reader’s mind. For example, if someone were running in a book, a person reading about the running individual would have similar (but not as intense) brain activity.1

Scientists wanted to examine what effects reading truly had on the brain using imaging techniques. Participants were asked to read about thirty pages each night of a fictional book called Pompeii by Robert Harris. Researchers found those who read each night were essentially giving their brains a workout as they saw increased connections which compounded as time (and more pages) went by.2

The important thing about reading is that you not just learning what’s going on in that person’s head, you, to a certain extent, are experiencing it.

Rita Carter

The brain is like a muscle, so when we force our brains to sympathise and see life from varying perspectives, we will increase our empathy as humans. Without the curiosity to want to experience what others live, we will be unable to expand our way of thinking.

Harry Potter Gives Your Brain A Workout, Too!

Another study completed by scientists at Carnegie Mellon University found that they could predict a person’s neural patterns while reading a passage in Harry Potter and The Sorcerer’s Stone with 74% accuracy.

Participants sat in an MRI machine while the words from Harry Potter were flashed on a screen. When Harry was learning to fly, certain regions of the brain were activated, corresponding to areas which are stimulated when we watch people move around for real.

This kind of research could help unravel what happens in the brains of people struggling with language or with dyslexia. Creating detailed brain maps while thinking about various things (like we do when we read) can help scientists determine where certain actions or behaviours originate in the brain. If an area mapped for grammar or language doesn’t activate properly, it could explain why a person has difficulty reading or learning a new language.3

It’s Easier Than Ever To Find Fiction Books

You have no excuse not to read, read, read! It’s easy to find fiction books at your local library, at used bookstores, and even at garage sales. With a little legwork, you can find almost anything your heart desires.

You might have a few questions, though, such as:

  • Do the lights from digital eReaders affect your brain before sleep?
  • Is there a difference between digital books and printed books regarding reading comprehension?
  • What is happening in our brains when we read print versus digital media?

To find out more, stay tuned for the second blog in this ‘Print Isn’t Dead! Why Reading Print is Good for Your Brain’. But, we know reading fiction is good for your brain, which needs a workout just like the rest of your body. By reading, we can indulge our curiosity about another person’s experience and forge new connections in our brain. We can become more empathetic to what other people live through and what emotions they feel.


1. Carter R. Why Reading Matters. TEDx Talks. 2019. Available at: 

2. Berns GS, Blaine K, Prietula MJ, Pye BE.Short- and Long-Term Effects of a Novel on Connectivity in the Brain. Brain Connectivity. 2013;3(6): 590-600. 10.1089/brain.2013.0166

3. Wehbe L, Murphy B, Talukdar P, Fyshe A, Ramdas A, Mitchell T. Simultaneously uncovering the patterns of brain regions involved in different story reading subprocesses. PLoS One. 2014;9(11):e112575. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0112575

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