It’s often recommended that people find a distraction when anxious thoughts set in – start cleaning, call a friend, watch a movie – anything that helps place focus elsewhere. Now, research out of Emory University suggests that getting into a book may be one of the best was to distract one’s self from anxiety. The findings show that reading really does transport you to another place, and it provides a number of cognitive benefits, including reduced anxiety and depression, as well.
Getting Lost in a Good Story
Over the course of nine nights, Emory researchers scanned the brains of undergraduates before reading sections of a thriller novel. The brains scans were taken again the following morning, as well as five days after the students finished the book.
The readings the morning after, as well as those five days after completing the novel, showed heightened connectivity in the students’ brains in the regions associated with language comprehension and movement/sensation. According to Professor Gregory Berns, a neuroscientist associated with the study, this was an unexpected finding.
“Reading stories — especially those with strong narrative arcs — reconfigures brain networks for at least a few days,” Berns said.
He and and study lead author Carol Clark said that these neural changes “suggest that reading a novel can transport you into the body of the protagonist.”
This confirms the ample anecdotal evidence that good writing can take us away from our problems. But what’s great about this study is that it shows that reading is more than just an effective distraction in the moment –the cognitive benefits of reading continue even after you turn the last page.
Reading, TV and Cognitive Functioning
Theory of Mind, or ToM, is essentially the ability to understand your own beliefs, intents, desires, etc. and to understand how the beliefs, intents, desires of others are different from your own. Bergland points out that sound ToM is an important component of various forms of cognitive functioning, including the ability to feel compassion for others.
While reading has been shown to improve ToM, television has been found to reduce it. This is a bit unsettling, considering we live in a country where televisions outnumber residents in the average home, and nearly half of college graduates will never read another book after getting their degrees.
So next time you’re looking for a distraction from your worries, consider opening a book or powering up your e-reader instead of escaping with a Netflix binge. Not only will you get the anxiety relief you’re looking for, but you’ll reap the benefits of a good “mental workout” as well.