"The universe is made of stories, not of atoms."
Build your brain. Read a book.
I've read some truly excellent books lately. The kind where you grow attached to the characters, miss them when they're gone. The kind where the haunting, lilting quality of the prose lifts you up, makes you think, expands your consciousness, has you emit little gasps of astonishment.
The kind you remember.
I am a voracious reader. I go through probably two to three books a week. Reading is my escape, my haven, my inspiration, my fascination.
So you can imagine how thrilled I was to come across research from the Yale School of Public Health demonstrating that reading books likely extends your lifespan by two years or more.
("Great!" I thought, "I'll have two more years to read.")
The Yale researchers were reviewing 12 years of data from the University of Michigan's Health and Retirement Study (HRS). The HRS is a longitudinal panel study that administers surveys to around 20,000 Americans over the age of 50 every two years. It is supported by the National Institute on Aging and the Social Security Administration, and is one of the largest longitudinal studies of its kind.
What the Yale researchers discovered was that in analyzing the health statuses and reading habits of over 3,600 men and women over the age of 50 in the HRS, a distinct pattern came to light.
It turned out that people who read books for at least 30 minutes a day were living, on average, two years longer than those who didn't read anything. Plus (and this part is important), the book readers were 23 percent less likely to die than people who were only reading newspapers or magazines.
In other words, if you want to live longer and have a more resilient brain, read books. Not just newspapers, magazines, tweets, Facebook updates, Instagram posts, or online articles. It doesn't matter whether the books are fiction or nonfiction; it just matters that they're books.
The Yale team had the same question you're probably asking right now: What is it about reading books specifically that boosts brain power and overall health, when things like newspapers and magazines don't?
The researchers had a few theories. First, books encourage what they deemed "deep reading." Rather than just skimming over a headline and the bite-sized information in an article or social-media post, reading a book forces you to make connections between chapters--and to the outside world.
When you make those connections, you forge new neural pathways between regions in both hemispheres of your brain, as well as in all four lobes. (It has been repeatedly demonstrated that establishing new neural networks is one of the best ways to stave off dementia and other cognitive decay.)
This concept was backed up by research out of Stanford that looked at the fMRI images of study participants tasked with reading a novel by Jane Austen. The researchers had participants first leisurely skim a passage (like you might do when deciding whether to purchase it at a bookstore), and then perform what they called "close reading"--reading as if you were studying it for an exam.
According to Natalie Phillips, the literary scholar leading the project, brain scans showed significant increases in blood flow during close reading. This, she suggests, shows that "paying attention to literary texts requires the coordination of multiple complex cognitive functions."
This makes sense to me on an intuitive as well as intellectual level. Because I feel different after reading disparate Instagram posts versus spending 30+ minutes reading a book. It's much like the difference between eating junk food and having a real meal; the shorter posts are fun and pleasurable to read, but I feel empty after scrolling. When I read my book, on the other hand, I feel filled up. Nourished.
If you're like most people, you want to live a long, healthy, and meaningful life. You want to contribute to the world. You want to be a leader.
But if you're constantly running around, scrolling through feeds, and never actually sitting down to relax and focus on something like reading a book for half an hour--half an hour!--you're doing your body and brain a disservice.
Taking care of yourself means more than just making sure you don't have three venti coffees in one day.
Build your brain. Read a book.
For those interested, here are the three best books I've read lately. They've each touched me in a different way, but they've all had a lasting impact...and likely added years onto my life:
The Last Painting of Sara de Vos, by Dominic Smith (fiction): Some of the best writing I've seen in years. Stunning. Themes of redemption, aging, class, theft of all kinds, and love.
The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America, by Erik Larson (nonfiction): The true and riveting story of the 1893 Chicago World Fair, told alongside the story of a serial killer operating in the city at the same time. If you're from the U.S., you'll be stunned that didn't know more about this major part of American history.
The Land of Love and Drowning, by Tiphanie Yanique (fiction): You have to pay close attention to this one--its themes are many and its eerie, lovely prose is as melodic as it is disturbing. Highly recommended.
"Never trust anyone who has not brought a book with them." --Lemony Snicket