Theodore Roosevelt is famously quoted as saying, “If you want to lead, you must read.”
Sadly, statistics show that Americans 20–34 years of age spend an average of 0.11 hours—or less than 7 minutes—reading per day.
Leadership is simply one of the reasons why people believe reading is important. But not everyone thinks about becoming a leader. In that case, one question that is equally crucial is: does reading make you smarter?
Does Reading Increase IQ?
A person’s intelligence level is not easy to define, but one of the most common tools used to measure intelligence is called the Intelligence Quotient, or IQ.
German psychologist William Stern formulated this measurement tool in the early 20th century. The system defines intelligence as the combination of different abilities, such as problem-solving, gaining new information, and using abstract reasoning.
The test calculates a person’s scores based on their “mental age” score and their chronological age, and shows how they perform compared to other people.
Many factors influence a person’s IQ, including childhood experiences, your family background, and the schools they attended. A person’s motivations also play into how well they do on an IQ test.
One way that reading improves IQ test scores is through the added information that we absorb from reading more.
For example, many IQ tests include a vocabulary section, so reading more might translate into knowing more words and their meanings.
Another possible reason is that reading teaches children to understand abstract concepts, which also come up on IQ tests. Note, though, that this hypothesis is still currently being researched.
However, IQ tests may not be the only way to measure intelligence. For example, University of Michigan psychology professor Richard Nisbett has this to say:
“People confuse ability with knowledge. We all can study and improve our vocabulary. But I would argue that doesn’t make us any smarter.”
Indeed, intelligence may be described in more than just IQ scores.
What Does Reading Do to the Brain?
Researchers have found that reading does alter the brain in many ways, and not all of these effects can be measured in IQ tests.
Reading has been found to have a considerable effect on the following intelligence factors:
1. Crystallized Intelligence
Psychologist Raymond Cattell first developed the theory of crystallized and fluid intelligence.
Crystallized intelligence refers to the sum total of facts and information that a person knows. Colloquially, this is known as “book smarts.” The more that you read, the more that you have in your database of information.
2. Fluid Intelligence
Whereas crystallized intelligence is based on a database of facts, fluid intelligence is more difficult to measure. Fluid intelligence refers to abstract knowledge.
It includes problem-solving skills and the capacity to identify patterns. It also includes being able to find solutions to problems even without having any prior knowledge of the task or situation.
How does reading improve fluid intelligence?
Experts believe that people who read are better equipped to deal with unusual situations, simply based on the wide variety of experiences (albeit vicarious experiences) they have had through all the books they’ve read.
3. Emotional Intelligence
Emotional intelligence is defined as the measure of a person’s ability to understand the feelings and thoughts of others.
According to psychologists Emanuele Castano and David Comer Kidd, reading fiction increases a person’s emotional intelligence.
The test included a comparison of participants reading nonfiction, literary fiction, and popular fiction. The results favored reading literary fiction most of all.
A possible explanation is that reading fiction lets the reader experience the same psychological processes they need to navigate real-life relationships.
As Kidd and Castano write in their study:
“Understanding others’ mental states is a crucial skill that enables the complex social relationships that characterize human societies.”
Why Is Reading Good for You?
In addition to boosting your IQ and emotional intelligence, reading regularly can improve your life in a number of ways:
Reading improves your vocabulary.
In University of Berkeley Professor Anne E. Cunningham’s paper, What Reading Does for the Mind, she explains that reading not only has direct results on the brain when we find meaning from the passage being read, but it also has “cognitive consequences that extend beyond [that].”
Her research also shows that reading is a uniquely effective way to expand vocabulary, while also improving verbal fluency and spelling.
One explanation is that words used in books tend to be more varied than those used in regular spoken conversations, including those featured on TV shows.
Reading improves your memory.
Reading stimulates your brain, which results in improved brain health. This, in turn, increases your memory capacity.
Research has found that reading slows down cognitive decline, which helps keep your memory intact and also prevents the development of mental illnesses and memory loss.
Reading improves your focus.
In an age when distractions seem to lurk behind every corner, the average person’s attention span continues to grow shorter. Thankfully, reading is a proven way to help improve your concentration.
When you stop reading something in a book and return to it a day later, your mind is challenged to think back on where you stopped. This helps you train your mind to think.
Additionally, when reading a book, you need your full attention in order to understand what you’re reading. This forces you to slow down instead of just skimming like you porbably would for online material.
Reading strengthens brain connectivity.
Neuroscientist Gregory Berns learned that not only does reading give you an abstract understanding of another person, but it actually has biological implications.
After giving several participants a novel to read at home, Berns and his team conducted a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan the next day.
The results showed heightened connectivity in the part of the brain linked with receptivity for language.
Reading improves your writing skills.
One of the most common pieces of advice given to writers who want to improve their writing is to read more, preferably in their chosen genre.
The key idea is that as you read what others have written, you get a feel for what “sounds” right and can later emulate the same in your own writing.
Reading helps you relax.
A study conducted by researchers at Sussex University in 2009 found that reading is capable of reducing stress in individuals by as much as 68%.
Even reading for as little as 6 minutes has been found to slow down your heart rate, calm your mind, and relax your body.
Does Reading Make You Smarter?
Based on these benefits, it appears that reading can in fact make you smarter in more ways than one. Thankfully, with the advent of e-books, a great read is easier than ever to find.
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