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.

5 Signs Humans Are Still Evolving

Lealisa Westerhoff, AFP/Getty Images
Lealisa Westerhoff, AFP/Getty Images

When we think of human evolution, our minds wander back to the millions of years it took natural selection to produce modern-day man. Recent research suggests that, despite modern technology and industrialization, humans continue to evolve. "It is a common misunderstanding that evolution took place a long time ago, and that to understand ourselves we must look back to the hunter-gatherer days of humans," Dr. Virpi Lummaa, a professor at the University of Turku, told Gizmodo.

But not only are we still evolving, we're doing so even faster than before. In the last 10,000 years, the pace of our evolution has sped up, creating more mutations in our genes, and more natural selections from those mutations. Here are some clues that show humans are continuing to evolve.

1. Humans drink milk.

Historically, the gene that regulated humans' ability to digest lactose shut down as we were weaned off our mothers' breast milk. But when we began domesticating cows, sheep, and goats, being able to drink milk became a nutritionally advantageous quality, and people with the genetic mutation that allowed them to digest lactose were better able to propagate their genes.

The gene was first identified in 2002 in a population of northern Europeans that lived between 6000 and 5000 years ago. The genetic mutation for digesting milk is now carried by more than 95 percent of northern European descendants. In addition, a 2006 study suggests this tolerance for lactose developed again, independently of the European population, 3000 years ago in East Africa.

2. We're losing our wisdom teeth.

Our ancestors had much bigger jaws than we do, which helped them chew a tough diet of roots, nuts, and leaves. And what meat they ate they tore apart with their teeth, all of which led to worn-down chompers that needed replacing. Enter the wisdom teeth: A third set of molars is believed to be the evolutionary answer to accommodate our ancestors' eating habits.

Today, we have utensils to cut our food. Our meals are softer and easier to chew, and our jaws are much smaller, which is why wisdom teeth are often impacted when they come in — there just isn't room for them. Unlike the appendix, wisdom teeth have become vestigial organs. One estimate says 35 percent of the population is born without wisdom teeth, and some say they may disappear altogether.

3. We're resisting infectious diseases.

In 2007, a group of researchers looking for signs of recent evolution identified 1800 genes that have only become prevalent in humans in the last 40,000 years, many of which are devoted to fighting infectious diseases like malaria. More than a dozen new genetic variants for fighting malaria are spreading rapidly among Africans. Another study found that natural selection has favored city-dwellers. Living in cities has produced a genetic variant that allows us to be more resistant to diseases like tuberculosis and leprosy. "This seems to be an elegant example of evolution in action," says Dr. Ian Barnes, an evolutionary biologist at London's Natural History Museum, said in 2010 statement. "It flags up the importance of a very recent aspect of our evolution as a species, the development of cities as a selective force."

4. Our brains are shrinking.

While we may like to believe our big brains make us smarter than the rest of the animal world, our brains have actually been shrinking over the last 30,000 years. The average volume of the human brain has decreased from 1500 cubic centimeters to 1350 cubic centimeters, which is an amount equivalent to the size of a tennis ball.

There are several different conclusions as to why this is: One group of researchers suspects our shrinking brains mean we are in fact getting dumber. Historically, brain size decreased as societies became larger and more complex, suggesting that the safety net of modern society negated the correlation between intelligence and survival. But another, more encouraging theory says our brains are shrinking not because we're getting dumber, but because smaller brains are more efficient. This theory suggests that, as they shrink, our brains are being rewired to work faster but take up less room. There's also a theory that smaller brains are an evolutionary advantage because they make us less aggressive beings, allowing us to work together to solve problems, rather than tear each other to shreds.

5. Some of us have blue eyes.

Originally, we all had brown eyes. But about 10,000 years ago, someone who lived near the Black Sea developed a genetic mutation that turned brown eyes blue. While the reason blue eyes have persisted remains a bit of a mystery, one theory is that they act as a sort of paternity test. “There is strong evolutionary pressure for a man not to invest his paternal resources in another man’s child,” Bruno Laeng, lead author of a 2006 study on the development of blue eyes, told The New York Times. Because it is virtually impossible for two blue-eyed mates to create a brown-eyed baby, our blue-eyed male ancestors may have sought out blue-eyed mates as a way of ensuring fidelity. This would partially explain why, in a recent study, blue-eyed men rated blue-eyed women as more attractive compared to brown-eyed women, whereas females and brown-eyed men expressed no preference.

Now Ear This: A New App Can Detect a Child's Ear Infection

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iStock.com/Techin24

Generally speaking, using an internet connection to diagnose a medical condition is rarely recommended. But technology is getting better at outpacing skepticism over handheld devices guiding decisions and suggesting treatment relating to health care. The most recent example is an app that promises to identify one of the key symptoms of ear infections in kids.

The Associated Press reports that researchers at the University of Washington are close to finalizing an app that would allow a parent to assess whether or not their child has an ear infection using their phone, some paper, and some soft noises. A small piece of paper is folded into a funnel shape and inserted into the ear canal to focus the app's sounds (which resemble bird chirps) toward the child’s ear. The app measures sound waves bouncing off the eardrum. If pus or fluid is present, the sound waves will be altered, indicating a possible infection. The parent would then receive a text from the app notifying them of the presence of buildup in the middle ear.

The University of Washington tested the efficacy of the app by evaluating roughly 50 patients scheduled to undergo ear surgery at Seattle Children’s Hospital. The app was able to identify fluid in patients' ears about 85 percent of the time. That’s roughly as well as traditional exams, which involve visual identification as well as specialized acoustic devices.

While the system looks promising, not all cases of fluid in the ear are the result of infections or require medical attention. Parents would need to evaluate other symptoms, such as fever, if they intend to use the app to decide whether or not to seek medical attention. It may prove most beneficial in children with persistent fluid accumulation, a condition that needs to be monitored over the course of months when deciding whether a drain tube needs to be placed. Checking for fluid at home would save both time and money compared to repeated visits to a physician.

The app does not yet have Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval and there is no timetable for when it might be commercially available. If it passes muster, it would join a number of FDA-approved “smart” medical diagnostic tools, including the AliveKor CardiaBand for the Apple Watch, which conducts EKG monitoring for heart irregularities.

[h/t WGRZ]

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