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.

woman reads book while cat lays on her chest
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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.

younger woman and older woman read a book together
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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.

woman gets great idea from reading book
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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.

15 Positively Reinforcing Facts About B.F. Skinner

Silly rabbit via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 3.0
Silly rabbit via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 3.0

Burrhus Frederic Skinner was one of the preeminent American psychologists of the 20th century. B.F. Skinner founded “radical behaviorism”—a twist on traditional behaviorism, a field of psychology that focused exclusively on observable human behavior. Thoughts, feelings, and perceptions were cast aside as unobservable.

B.F. Skinner dubbed his own method of observing behavior “operant conditioning,” which posited that behavior is determined solely by its consequences—either reinforcements or punishments. He also coined the term "positive reinforcement." 

To Skinner’s critics, the idea that these “principles of reinforcement,” as he called them, lead to easy “behavior modification” suggested that we do not have free will and are little more than automatons acting in response to stimuli. But his fans considered him visionary. Controversial to the end, B.F. Skinner was well known for his unconventional methods, unusual inventions, and utopian—some say dystopian—ideas about human society.

1. B.F. Skinner invented the "operant conditioning" or "Skinner" box.

Skinner believed that the best way to understand behavior is to look at the causes of an action and its consequences. He called this approach “operant conditioning.” Skinner began by studying rats interacting with an environment inside a box, where they were rewarded with a pellet of food for responding to a stimulus like light or sound with desired behavior. This simple experiment design would over the years take on dark metaphorical meaning: Any environment that had mechanisms in place to manipulate or control behavior could be called a "Skinner box." Recently, some have argued that social media is a sort of digital Skinner box: Likes, clicks, and shares are the pellet-like rewards we get for responding to our environment with certain behavior. Yes, we are the rats.

2. B.F. Skinner believed that all behavior was affected by one of three "operants."

Skinner proposed there were only three “operants” that had affected human behavior. Neutral operants were responses from the environment that had a benign effect on a behavior. Reinforcers were responses that increased the likelihood of a behavior’s repetition. And punishers decreased the likelihood of a behavior’s repetition. While he was correct that behavior can be modified via this system, it’s only one of many methods for doing so, and it failed to take into account how emotions, thoughts, and—as we learned eventually—the brain itself account for changes in behavior.

3. He's responsible for the term "positive reinforcement."

B.F. Skinner eventually moved on to studying pigeons in his Skinner box. The pigeons would peck at a disc to gain access to food at various intervals, and for completing certain tasks. From this Skinner concluded that some form of reinforcement was crucial in learning new behaviors. To his mind, positive reinforcement strengthens a behavior by providing a consequence an individual finds rewarding. He concluded that reinforced behavior tends to be repeated and strengthened.

4. Some critics felt "positive reinforcement" amounted to bribery.

Critics were dubious that Skinner's focus on behavior modification through positive reinforcement of desired behavior could actually change behavior for the long term, and that it was little more than temporary reward, like bribery, for a short-term behavioral change.

5. B.F. Skinner's idea of "negative reinforcement" isn't what you think.

Skinner believed negative reinforcement also helped to strengthen behavior; this doesn't mean exposing an animal or person to a negative stimulus, but rather removing an “unpleasant reinforcer.” The idea was that removing the negative stimulus would feel like a “reward” to the animal or person.

6. B.F. Skinner taught pigeons to play ping-pong.

As part of his research into positive reinforcement, he taught pigeons to play ping-pong as a first step in seeing how trainable they were. He ultimately wanted to teach them to guide bombs and missiles and even convinced the military to fund his research to that effect. He liked working with pigeons because they responded well to reinforcements and punishments, thus validating his theories. We know now that pigeons can be trained in a whole host of tasks, including distinguishing written words from nonsense and spotting cancer.

7. B.F. Skinner's first book, The Behavior of Organisms, broke new ground.

Published in 1938, Skinner’s debut book made the case that simple observation of cause and effect, reward and punishment, were as significant to understanding behavior as other “conceptual or neural processes.”

Skinner believed behavior was everything. Thoughts and feelings were just unreliable byproducts of behaviors, he argued—and therefore dismissed them. Many of his fellow psychologists disagreed. Regardless, Skinner’s theories contributed to a greater understanding of the relationship between stimuli and resulting behavior and may have even laid the groundwork for understanding the brain’s reward circuitry, which centers around the amygdala.

8. B.F. Skinner created the "baby tender."

Skinner was fond of inventions, and having children gave him a new outlet for his tendencies. He designed a special crib for his infant daughter called “the baby tender.” The clear box, with air holes, was heated so that the baby didn't need blankets. Unlike typical cribs, there were no slats in the sides, which he said prevented possible injury. Unsurprisingly, it did not catch on with the public.

9. B.F. Skinner also developed his own "teaching machine."


Silly rabbit via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 3.0

You may have Skinner to thank for modern school workbooks and test-taking procedures. In 1954 Skinner visited his daughter’s classroom and found himself frustrated with the “inefficiencies” of the teaching procedures. His first "teaching machine"—a very basic program to improve teaching methods for spelling, math, and other school subjects—was little more than a fill-in-the-blank method on workbook or computer. It’s now considered a precursor to computer-assisted learning programs.

10. Skinner imaged an ideal society based on his theories of human behavior.

Skinner admired Henry David Thoreau’s famous book Walden, in which Thoreau writes about his retreat to the woods to get in greater contact with his inner nature. Skinner's "Ten Commandments" for a utopian world include: “(1) No way of life is inevitable. Examine your own closely. (2) If you do not like it, change it. (3) But do not try to change it through political action. Even if you succeed in gaining power, you will not likely be able to use it any more wisely than your predecessors. (4) Ask only to be left alone to solve your problems in your own way. (5) Simplify your needs. Learn how to be happy with fewer possessions.”

11. B.F. Skinner wrote a utopian novel, Walden Two.

Though inspired by Walden, Skinner also felt the book was too self-indulgent, so he wrote his own fictional follow-up with the 1948 novel Walden Two. The book proposed a type of utopian—some say dystopian—society that employed a system of behavior modification based on operant conditioning. This system of rewards and punishments would, Skinner proposed, make people into good citizens:

“We can achieve a sort of control under which the controlled, though they are following a code much more scrupulously than was ever the case under the old system, nevertheless feel free. They are doing what they want to do, not what they are forced to do. That's the source of the tremendous power of positive reinforcement—there's no restraint and no revolt. By careful cultural design, we control not the final behavior, but the inclination to behave—the motives, desires, the wishes.”

12. Some felt Skinner's ideas were reductionist ...

Critics, of which there were many, felt he reduced human behavior to a series of actions and reactions: that an individual human “mind” only existed in a social context, and that humans could be easily manipulated by external cues. He did not put much store in his critics. Even at age 83, just three years before he died, he told Daniel Goleman in a 1987 New York Times article, “I think cognitive psychology is a great hoax and a fraud, and that goes for brain science, too. They are nowhere near answering the important questions about behavior.”

13. ... and others were horrified by Walden Two.

Astronomer and colleague JK Jessup wrote, “Skinner's utopian vision could change the nature of Western civilization more disastrously than the nuclear physicists and biochemists combined.”

14. B.F. Skinner implied that humans had no free will or individual consciousness.

In the late 1960s and early '70s, Skinner wrote several works applying his behavioral theories to society, including Beyond Freedom and Dignity (1971). He drew fire for implying that humans had no free will or individual consciousness but could simply be controlled by reward and punishment. His critics shouldn't have been surprised: this was the very essence of his behaviorism. He, however, was unconcerned with criticism. His daughter Julie S. Vargas has written that “Skinner felt that by answering critics (a) you showed that their criticism affected you; and (b) you gave them attention, thus raising their reputation. So he left replies to others.”

15. He died convinced that the fate of humanity lay in applying his methods of behavioral science to society.

In 1990, he died of leukemia at age 86 after receiving a Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Psychological Association. Proud of his work, he was nonetheless concerned about the fate of humanity and worried “about daily life in Western culture, international conflict and peace, and why people were not acting to save the world.”

A New DNA Test Will Break Down Your Cat's Breed

Basepaws
Basepaws

Modern DNA testing kits can reveal a lot of information about you just by sending your spit off to a lab for analysis. As a result, it's easier than ever to learn about your personal ancestry and health risks. And now, the same goes for your cat, too.

Basepaws is now offering what it calls the "world's first DNA test for cats," which can tell you which breeds your beloved fur baby likely descended from, in addition to other information about their characteristics. The CatKit will reveal whether your little Simba is more similar to an American Shorthair, Abyssinian, or one of the other 30 breeds on record, as well as determining which of the "big cats" (think lions) your kitty has the most in common with.

Here's how it works: After receiving your kit in the mail, you will be asked to collect a DNA sample from your feline friend. The current kit includes adhesives for collecting cat hair, but Basepaws will soon roll out new kits that call for saliva samples instead. (This will provide a more consistent DNA sample, while also allowing staff to process more samples at once, according to a company spokesperson. It also will make it easier to collect samples from hairless cats like Sphinxes.)

A cat DNA test result
Basepaws

Once you collect the sample, just mail it in and wait eight to 12 weeks for your report. Basepaws uses sequencing machines to "read" your kitty's genetic code, comparing it to the sequences of other cats in its network. "More than 99 percent of your cat's genetic sequence will be similar to every other cat; it's the small differences that make your cat unique," Basepaws writes on its website.

In the future, Basepaws will also be able to determine your cat's predisposition for certain diseases, as well as their personality and physical traits. The company holds on to your cat's genetic data, allowing it to provide updates about your cat as the Basepaws database continues to grow.

Order a kit on the Basepaws website for $95. Enter the code "MEOWRCH-I5W3RH" at the checkout for a 10 percent discount.

And don't feel left out if you're a dog lover rather than a cat person—Wisdom Panel offers a similar service for canine companions. Its kit is available for $73 on Amazon.

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