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.

elderly couple reads book together
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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.

young woman takes book from library bookshelf
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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.

10 Electrifying Facts About Michael Faraday

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This world-changing genius was born into poverty on September 22, 1791. Fortunately for us, Michael Faraday refused to let his background stand in his way.

1. HE WAS LARGELY SELF-EDUCATED.

In Faraday's boyhood home, money was always tight. His father, James, was a sickly blacksmith who struggled to support a wife and four children in one of London's poorer outskirts. At age 13, young Faraday started helping the family make ends meet. Bookseller George Ribeau (sometimes spelled Riebau) took him on as an errand boy in 1804, with the teen's primary job being the delivery and recovery of loaned-out newspapers.

Shortly after Faraday's 14th birthday, Ribeau offered him a free apprenticeship. Over the next seven years, he mastered the trade of bookbinding. After hours, Faraday remained in Ribeau's store, hungrily reading many of the same volumes he'd bound together.

Like most lower-class boys, Faraday's formal schooling was very limited. Between those bookshelves, however, he taught himself a great deal—especially about chemistry, physics, and a mysterious force called "electricity."

2. A 300-PAGE NOTEBOOK LAUNCHED HIS SCIENTIFIC CAREER.


Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 4.0 

Sir Humphry Davy (above) left a huge mark on science. In the year 1808 alone, the man discovered no less than five elements, including calcium and boron. An excellent public speaker, Davy's lectures at the Royal Institution consistently drew huge crowds. 

Twenty-year-old Faraday attended four of these presentations in 1812, having received tickets from a customer. As Davy spoke, Faraday jotted down detailed notes, which he then compiled and bound into a little book. Faraday sent his 300-page transcript to Davy. Duly impressed, the seasoned scientist eventually hired him as a lab assistant. Later in life, Davy was asked to name the greatest discovery he'd ever made. His answer: "Michael Faraday."

Tension would nevertheless erupt between mentor and protégé. As Faraday's accomplishments began to eclipse his own, Davy accused the younger man of plagiarizing another scientist's work (this rumor was swiftly discredited) and tried to block his admission to the Royal Society.

3. IF IT WEREN'T FOR FARADAY, WE MIGHT NOT HAVE ELECTRIC POWER.

On September 3, 1821, Faraday built a device that ushered technology into the modern era. One year earlier, Danish physicist Hans Christian Ørsted had demonstrated that when an electric current flows through a wire, a magnetic field is created around it. Faraday capitalized on this revelation. Inside the Royal Society basement, he began what was arguably his most groundbreaking experiment by placing a magnet in the bottom of a mercury-filled glass container. Dangling overhead was a wire, which Faraday connected to a battery. Once an electric current was conducted through the wire, it began rotating around the magnet.

Faraday had just built the world's first electric motor. How could he possibly top himself? By building the world's first electric generator. His first experiment was comprised of a simple ring of wires and cotton through which he passed a magnet. By doing so, he found that a current was generated. To this day, most electricity is made using the same principles.

4. FARADAY INVENTED THE RUBBER BALLOON.


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By today's standards, his early models would look shabby. Made via pressing two sheets of rubber together, Faraday's balloons were used to contain hydrogen during his experiments. Faraday created his first in 1824 and was quick to praise the bag's “considerable ascending power.” Toy manufacturers started distributing these the following year.

5. HE'S ALSO THE GRANDFATHER OF MODERN REFRIGERATORS.

In 1823, Faraday sealed a sample of chlorine hydrate inside a V-shaped tube. As he heated one end and cooled the other simultaneously, the scientist noticed that a peculiar yellow liquid was starting to form. Curious, he broke open the tube. Without warning, a sudden, violent explosion sent glass shards flying everywhere. Mercifully uninjured, he smelled a strong scent of chlorine in the air.

It didn't take him very long to figure out what had happened. Inside the tube, pressure was building, which liquefied the gas. Upon puncturing the glass, he'd released this pressure and, afterwards, the liquid reverted into its gaseous state. This sudden evaporation came with an interesting side-effect: it cooled down the surrounding air. Quite unintentionally, Faraday thus set the stage for the very first ice-making machines and refrigeration units.

6. HE BECAME AN ANTI-POLLUTION CRUSADER.

Britain's industrialization came at a malodorous price. As London grew more crowded during the mid-1800s, garbage and fecal matter were dumped into the River Thames with increasing regularity. Naturally, the area didn't smell like a rose. In 1855, Faraday penned an oft-reproduced open letter about the problem, imploring the authorities to take action. “If we neglect this subject,” he wrote, “we cannot expect to do so with impunity; nor ought we be surprised if, ere many years are over, a hot season give us sad proof for the folly of our carelessness.”

Just as Faraday predicted, a broiling summer forced Londoners of all stripes to hold their noses. Dubbed “the Great Stink,” the warmer months of 1858 sent the Thames' rancid odor wafting all over the city. Parliament hastily responded with a comprehensive sewage reform bill. Gradually, the putrid stench began to dissipate.

7. HE STARTED THE ROYAL SOCIETY'S CHRISTMAS LECTURE TRADITION.


Alexander Blaikley, Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain

Faraday understood the importance of making science accessible to the public. In 1825, while employed by the Royal Society, he spearheaded an annual series that's still going strong today. That holiday season, engineer John Millington delivered a set of layman-friendly lectures on “natural philosophy.” Every year thereafter (excluding 1939–1942 because of WWII), a prominent scientist has been invited to follow in his footsteps. Well-known Christmas lecturers include David Attenborough (1973), Carl Sagan (1977), and Richard Dawkins (1991). Faraday himself was the presenter on no less than 19 occasions.

8. BRILLIANT AS FARADAY WAS, HE STRUGGLED WITH MATH.

Towards the end of his life, Faraday's lack of formal education finally caught up with him. An underprivileged childhood had rendered him mathematically illiterate, a severe handicap for a professional scientist. In 1846, he hypothesized that light itself is an electromagnetic phenomenon, but because Faraday couldn't support the notion with mathematics, it wasn't taken seriously. Salvation for him came in the form of a young physicist named James Clerk Maxwell. Familial wealth had enabled Maxwell to pursue math and—in 1864—he released equations [PDF] that helped prove Faraday's hunch.

9. AS TIME WORE ON, HE STRUGGLED WITH MEMORY LOSS.

Michael Faraday
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At the age of 48, Faraday's once-sharp memory started faltering. Stricken by an illness that rendered him unable to work for three years, he wrestled with vertigo, unsteadiness, and other symptoms. Following this "extended vacation" [PDF], he returned to the Royal Society, where he experimented away until his early 70s.

However, Faraday was still prone to inexplicable spurts of sudden giddiness, depression, and extreme forgetfulness. “[My] bad memory,” he wrote, “both loses recent things and sometimes suggests old ones as new.” Nobody knows what caused this affliction, though some blame it on overexposure to mercury.

10. EINSTEIN KEPT A PORTRAIT OF FARADAY IN HIS BERLIN HOME.

Fittingly, the father of modern physics regarded Faraday as a personal hero. Once, upon receiving a book about him, Einstein remarked, “This man loved mysterious Nature as a lover loves his distant beloved.”

Fossilized Fat Shows 550-Million-Year-Old Sea Creature May Have Been the World's First Animal

Ilya Bobrovskiy, the Australian National University
Ilya Bobrovskiy, the Australian National University

A bizarre sea creature whose fossils look like a cross between a leaf and a fingerprint may be Earth's oldest known animal, dating back 558 million years.

As New Scientist reports, researchers from the Australian National University (ANU) made a fortunate find in a remote region of Russia: a Dickinsonia fossil with fat molecules still attached. These odd, oval-shaped creatures were soft-bodied, had rib structures running down their sides, and grew about 4.5 feet long. They were as “strange as life on another planet,” researchers wrote in the abstract of a new paper published in the journal Science.

Another variety of fossil
Ilya Bobrovskiy, the Australian National University

Although Dickinsonia fossils were first discovered in South Australia in 1946, researchers lacked the organic matter needed to classify this creature. "Scientists have been fighting for more than 75 years over what Dickinsonia and other bizarre fossils of the Edicaran biota were: giant single-celled amoeba, lichen, failed experiments of evolution, or the earliest animals on Earth,” senior author Jochen Brocks, an associate professor at ANU, said in a statement.

With the discovery of cholesterol molecules—which are found in almost all animals, but not in other organisms like bacteria and amoebas—scientists can say that Dickinsonia were animals. The creatures swam the seas during the Ediacaran Period, 635 million to 542 million years ago. More complex organisms like mollusks, worms, and sponges didn’t emerge until 20 million years later.

The fossil with fat molecules was found on cliffs near the White Sea in an area of northwest Russia that was so remote that researchers had to take a helicopter to get there. Collecting the samples was a death-defying feat, too.

“I had to hang over the edge of a cliff on ropes and dig out huge blocks of sandstone, throw them down, wash the sandstone, and repeat this process until I found the fossils I was after,” lead author Ilya Bobrovskiy of ANU said. Considering that this find could change our understanding of Earth’s earliest life forms, it seems the risk was worth it.

[h/t New Scientist]

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