6 Scientific Reasons You Should Be Reading More

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Reading transports us to worlds we would never see, introduces us to people we would never meet, and instills emotions we might never otherwise feel. It also provides an array of health benefits. Here are six scientific reasons you should be picking up more books.

1. READING REDUCES STRESS.

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In 2009, scientists at the University of Sussex in the UK assessed how different activities lowered stress by measuring heart rate and muscle tension. Reading a book or newspaper for just six minutes lowered people's stress levels by 68 percent—a stronger effect than going for a walk (42 percent), drinking a cup of tea or coffee (54 percent), or listening to music (61 percent). According to the authors, the ability to be fully immersed and distracted is what makes reading the perfect way to relieve stress.

2. READING—ESPECIALLY BOOKS—MAY ADD YEARS TO YOUR LIFE.

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A daily dose of reading may lengthen your lifespan. A team at Yale University followed more than 3600 adults over the age of 50 for 12 years. They discovered that people who reported reading books for 30 minutes a day lived nearly two years longer than those who read magazines or newspapers. Participants who read more than 3.5 hours per week were 23 percent less likely to die, and participants who read less than 3.5 hours per week were 17 percent less likely to die. "The benefits of reading books include a longer life in which to read them," the authors wrote.

3. READING IMPROVES YOUR LANGUAGE SKILLS AND KNOWLEDGE OF THE WORLD.

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In the 1990s, reading pioneer Keith Stanovich and his colleagues conducted dozens of reading studies to assess the relationship between cognitive skills, vocabulary, factual knowledge, and exposure to certain fiction and nonfiction authors. They used the Author Recognition Test (ART), which is a strong predictor of reading skill. Stanovich tells Mental Floss that the average result of these studies was that avid readers, as measured by the ART, had around a 50 percent larger vocabulary and 50 percent more fact-based knowledge.

Reading both predicts and contributes to those skills, says Donald Bolger, a human development professor at the University of Maryland who researches how the brain learns to read. "It's like a snowball effect," he tells Mental Floss. "The better you are at reading, the more words you learn. The more words you learn, the better you are at reading and comprehending—especially things that would have been outside your domain of expertise."

4. READING ENHANCES EMPATHY.

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For a 2013 Harvard study, a group of volunteers either read literary fiction (such as "Corrie" by Alice Munro), popular fiction (such as "Space Jockey" by Robert Heinlein), nonfiction (such as "How the Potato Changed the World" by Charles Mann), or nothing. Across five experiments, those who read literary fiction performed better on tasks like predicting how characters would act and identifying the emotion encoded in facial expressions. These speak to the ability to understand others' mental states, which scientists call Theory of Mind.

"If we engage with characters who are nuanced, unpredictable, and difficult to understand, then I think we're more likely to approach people in the real world with an interest and humility necessary for dealing with complex individuals," study lead author David Kidd, a postdoctoral fellow at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, tells Mental Floss.

5. READING BOOSTS CREATIVITY AND FLEXIBILITY.

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"In our real lives, we often feel like we have to make a decision, and therefore we close our mind to information that could eventually help us," Maja Djikic, a psychologist at the University of Toronto, tells Mental Floss. "When we read fiction, we practice keeping our minds open because we can afford uncertainty."

Djikic came to that conclusion after she conducted a study in which 100 people were assigned to read a fictional story or a nonfiction essay. The participants then completed questionnaires intended to assess their level of cognitive closure, which is the need to reach a conclusion quickly and avoid ambiguity in the decision-making process. The fiction readers emerged as more flexible and creative than the essay readers—and the effect was strongest for people who read on a regular basis.

6. READING CAN HELP YOU TRANSFORM AS A PERSON.

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It's not often that we can identify moments when our personality changes and evolves, but reading fiction may help us do just that. The same University of Toronto research team asked 166 people to fill out questionnaires regarding their emotions and key personality traits, based on the widely used Big Five Inventory, which measures extraversion, conscientiousness, agreeableness, emotional stability/neuroticism, and openness. Then half of the group read Anton Chekhov's short story "The Lady with the Toy Dog," about a man who travels to a resort and has an affair with a married woman. The other half of the group read a similar nonfiction version presented as a report from divorce court. Afterwards, everyone answered the same personality questions they'd answered previously—and many of the fiction readers' responses had significantly changed. They saw themselves differently after reading about others' fictional experience. The nonfiction readers didn't undergo this shift in self-reflection.

"As you identify with another person, a protagonist in the story, you enter into a piece of life that you wouldn't otherwise have known. You have emotions or circumstances that you wouldn't have otherwise understood," Keith Oatley, a University of Toronto psychologist and one of the study's authors, tells Mental Floss. Imagining new experiences creates a space in which readers can grow and change.

The Science Behind Brining Your Thanksgiving Turkey

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iStock.com/LazingBee

At many Thanksgiving tables, the annual roast turkey is just a vehicle for buttery mash and creamy gravy. But for those who prefer their bird be a main course that can stand on its own without accoutrements, brining is an essential prep step—despite the fact that it requires finding enough room in the fridges to immerse a 20-pound animal in gallons of salt water for days on end. To legions of brining believers, the resulting moist bird is worth the trouble.

How, exactly, does a salty soak yield juicy meat? And what about all the claims from a contingency of dry brine enthusiasts: Will merely rubbing your bird with salt give better results than a wet plunge? For a look at the science behind each process, we tracked down a couple of experts.

First, it's helpful to know why a cooked turkey might turn out dry to begin with. As David Yanisko, a culinary arts professor at the State University of New York at Cobleskill, tells Mental Floss, "Meat is basically made of bundles of muscle fibers wrapped in more muscle fibers. As they cook, they squeeze together and force moisture out," as if you were wringing a wet sock. Hence the incredibly simple equation: less moisture means more dryness. And since the converse is also true, this is where brining comes in.

Your basic brine consists of salt dissolved in water. How much salt doesn't much matter for the moistening process; its quantity only makes your meat and drippings more or less salty. When you immerse your turkey in brine—Ryan Cox, an animal science professor at the University of Minnesota, quaintly calls it a "pickling cover"—you start a process called diffusion. In diffusion, salt moves from the place of its highest concentration to the place where it's less concentrated: from the brine into the turkey.

Salt is an ionic compound—its sodium molecules have a positive charge and its chloride molecules have a negative charge, but they stick together anyway. As the brine penetrates the bird, those salt molecules meet both positively and negatively charged protein molecules in the meat, causing the meat proteins to scatter. Their rearrangement "makes more space between the muscle fibers," Cox tells Mental Floss. "That gives us a broader, more open sponge for water to move into."

The salt also dissolves some of the proteins, which, according to the book Cook's Science by the editors of Cook's Illustrated, creates "a gel that can hold onto even more water." Juiciness, here we come!

There's a catch, though. Brined turkey may be moist, but it can also taste bland—infusing it with salt water is still introducing, well, water, which is a serious flavor diluter. This is where we cue the dry briners. They claim that using salt without water both adds moisture and enhances flavor: win-win.

Turkey being prepared to cook.
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In dry brining, you rub the surface of the turkey with salt and let it sit in a cold place for a few days. Some salt penetrates the meat as it sits—with both dry and wet brining, Cox says this happens at a rate of about 1 inch per week. But in this process, the salt is effective mostly because of osmosis, and that magic occurs in the oven.

"As the turkey cooks, the [contracting] proteins force the liquid out—what would normally be your pan drippings," Yanisko says. The liquid mixes with the salt, both get absorbed or reabsorbed into the turkey and, just as with wet brining, the salt disperses the proteins to make more room for the liquid. Only this time the liquid is meat juices instead of water. Moistness and flavor ensue.

Still, Yanisko admits that he personally sticks with wet brining—"It’s tradition!" His recommended ratio of 1-1/2 cups of kosher salt (which has no added iodine to gunk up the taste) to 1 gallon of water gives off pan drippings too salty for gravy, though, so he makes that separately. Cox also prefers wet brining, but he supplements it with the advanced, expert's addition of injecting some of the solution right into the turkey for what he calls "good dispersal." He likes to use 1-1/2 percent of salt per weight of the bird (the ratio of salt to water doesn't matter), which he says won't overpower the delicate turkey flavor.

Both pros also say tossing some sugar into your brine can help balance flavors—but don't bother with other spices. "Salt and sugar are water soluble," Cox says. "Things like pepper are fat soluble so they won't dissolve in water," meaning their taste will be lost.

But no matter which bird or what method you choose, make sure you don't roast past an internal temperature of 165˚F. Because no brine can save an overcooked turkey.

This piece originally ran in 2017.

Why Your Cat's Tongue Is Nature's Perfect Hairbrush

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iStock.com/takashikiji

A lick from a cat is a mixed blessing. On the one hand, cats don’t dole out affection to just anyone, so it’s a true compliment when they try to groom you. On the other hand, their tongues feel like sandpaper wrapped in barbed wire. Those sharp tongues are actually incredible tools, according to a new study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Their unique structure is very efficient at depositing saliva on cats' fur to help them clean themselves and keep cool. Researchers from Georgia Tech made the discovery using high-speed video, CT scans, and “grooming force measurements.”

Cats aren't just prettying themselves up when they spend all day grooming themselves, the study shows. (That’s not an exaggeration—house cats can spend up to a quarter of their waking lives grooming.) As they lick themselves, their tongues remove debris, fleas, and excess heat from their fur thanks to those sharp, curved spines—called filiform papillae—that are so unpleasant to feel on your skin.

A close-up image of a cat's tongue
Alexis Noel

These keratin-based filiform papillae have U-shaped hollows at their tips that allow cats to wick saliva from their mouths onto their fur, helping them regulate body temperature and cool down. Each of these papillae can carry one-tenth of an eyedropper’s worth of spit, half of which gets deposited on the fur. The papillae spread the saliva along the roots of each hair, allowing it to penetrate cats’ fur so that it can cool their skin. Saliva alone can provide 25 percent of a cat’s cooling needs, according to the study.

This useful adaptation isn’t limited to domestic cats. Researchers looked at tongue tissue from six different species—bobcat, cougar, snow leopard, tiger, and lion, in addition to house cats—and found similar structures.

As part of the study, the researchers also created a flexible “tongue-inspired grooming" (TIGR) brush with the help of 3D models of a house cat’s papillae. They found it was easier to clean than a typical human hairbrush—hair could be removed from it in one swipe, without the tweezers or other tools you need to get hair out of the stiff bristles of the typical hairbrush. (The wavy ridges on the roofs of cats’ mouths may do this job in the animals themselves.)

The brush has several potential uses. Because of its papillae-inspired structure, it could be used to apply liquids to cats’ skin. That could be helpful for applying topical medication, but it might also be a way to wash off some of the allergens they produce that bother humans. Potentially, there could be human uses for a papillae-like hairbrush in the future, too. You could imagine using it to brush styling products evenly through your hair, for instance. The researchers suggest the structure "may provide inspiration to soft robotics and biologically inspired technologies for sorting, cleaning, and depositing fluids into fur and arrays of flexible filaments."

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