The Joy & Health Benefits of Reading
Author: Dr. Cindy Geyer
Medical Director Canyon Ranch Lenox
As a teenager I drove my parents crazy, and not just for the usual teen behaviors. I was an avid reader, especially of books that could transport me to other places or worlds. When my nose was in a book I selectively filtered out everything else, including my parents’ attempts to call me for dinner or engage in a conversation. Later in my professional life, my reading time was taken up by medical texts and journal articles. I had to be selective in picking up a novel: If it captured my attention, I could stay up late, move very little, and put off other tasks on my to-do list.
Research has now shown numerous potential health benefits to reading, some of which may be unique to reading a physical book as opposed to reading online. Reading helps expand vocabulary and is associated with better performance in school. Functional MRI scans show an increase in brain connectivity in different areas of the brain, which may explain the association of reading with a reduced risk of cognitive decline. Reading literary fiction can help you cultivate a heightened ability to understand the thoughts and feelings of others, enhancing empathy and skills involved in building and maintaining social relationships. One study found reading was as effective as yoga or humor in reducing stress, lowering blood pressure and heart rate. Reading can also improve sleep, especially a physical book (although if you are like me you may want to avoid a riveting mystery or science fiction novel before bed!). Finally, immersing yourself in another world or another person’s narrative may help depression and alleviate boredom.
In the last couple weeks, I found myself going back and rereading the last three books in J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. Why? I was looking to go back and visit a familiar world of magic. Here’s what I loved about it:
Rediscovering delightful details about the characters and the world of muggles and wizards that I had forgotten.
Laughing out loud at Rowling’s ability to capture teenage dialogue with humor, insight and empathy.
Remembering images from the midnight book release parties at Barnes & Noble, where my children and their friends, dressed in their wizard capes, would run around brandishing their wands and casting “spells” at each other.
Being transported back in time to the warm, peaceful feeling of reading out loud for hours on end with one son tucked under each arm.
Appreciating the powerful themes about right and wrong, loyalty, integrity, friendship and the importance of family (not just the ones to which you are born, but the ones you choose).
Perhaps you can find your own inspiration to crack open a book in the personal experiences my colleagues shared:
Nicola Finley, MD
Canyon Ranch Tucson
I recommend A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle. It’s a book I didn’t read in my childhood, although a number of my friends did back then. I finally read it two years ago at the same time my daughter was reading the book. Then we went to see the movie with a few friends. I enjoyed connecting with my daughter through a book. That was the first time we simultaneously yet independently read a book and discussed it along the way. It was a great experience for both of us.
Cory Lenherr, MD
Canyon Ranch Lenox
I’m an “auditory reader.” I’ve been re-listening to a novel called The Alice Network, which is about the intersection of three people’s lives between the first and second world wars. Most of the focus is on a female resistance network in France during WWI. It’s beautifully narrated and continues to be interesting even the fourth time through!
Andy Groggel, MA
Senior Director of Health & Healing, Canyon Ranch Tucson
I’m reading a book by Charles Eisenstein called Climate – A New Story. I am convinced that Eisenstein is a sage for his/my generation. In this book, he examines the climate crisis from all angles and structures a new narrative, asserting that we are telling the wrong story about climate change. The climate, he says, is just fine—it is human behaviors, namely our obsession with a monetary-based value system, causing the climate to change.
Eisenstein goes on to encourage us all to summon courage to examine the root causes of our behaviors. The changes he suggests are remarkably simple ones that are full of paradoxical complexity. His words and unique viewpoint give me permission to breathe deep in these unsettling times. I am left with hope instead of worry, and a belief that I can impact meaningful change in my lifetime.
Corporate Director of Transformational Experiences, Canyon Ranch
Over the past 25 years of working at Canyon Ranch, I have met some of the most talented health professionals in the wellness industry. Each has had a lasting impact on how I approach and overcome life’s challenges and obstacles – specifically, when I find myself saying, “I know what I should be doing …but I’m just not doing it.” Unlocking the mysteries of human behavior and helping us get unstuck, has long been the work of author and clinical psychologist Robert Maurer, PhD. He wrote the definitive book on kaizen – the practice of taking small incremental steps toward lasting change. So recently, when I found myself feeling emotionally overwhelmed by the news of this devastating pandemic, I reached for Maurer’s 2016 book Mastering Fear, where he and co-author Michelle Gifford provide great insight about how to harness and use fear – rather than pushing it away – to create positive change. No, I haven’t fully mastered fear yet, that takes time and practice. But, getting “unstuck” sure feels good!
Diane Downing, MD
Canyon Ranch Tucson
Probably 20 years ago, I began reading the Conversations with God series by Neale Donald Walsh. At the time, it had a tremendous impact on how I viewed the world and our relationships with one another. In the last few weeks, I felt myself drawn once again to these books, although this time I was listening to them on Audible. With so much divisiveness and turmoil in the world, it was good for my soul to once again gain a new perspective on life and humanity and find just a bit more compassion in my heart for my fellow humans. We really are in this together and are all part of one greater collective consciousness.
Cindy Geyer, MD