Fewer and fewer young people read for pleasure. Yet this activity is extremely beneficial to them in cognitive, intellectual and behavioural terms, especially if they get into reading at an early age, a new study reveals.
Researchers in the United Kingdom and China have investigated the multiple benefits of “leisure reading” by analysing data from the Adolescent Brain and Cognitive Development cohort, recruited as part of a study of over 10,000 young adolescents in North America.
The scientists wanted to determine whether reading for pleasure in early childhood contributes to the cerebral and cognitive development of young people.
Indeed, specialists and teachers often insist on the need for kids to immerse themselves in reading from an early age. That’s why they encourage parents to read stories with their children to give them a lasting love of books.
Previously, though, scientists were unsure whether this activity involves cognitive and brain mechanisms that could benefit youngsters as they grow older.
To test this hypothesis, researchers from the Universities of Cambridge, Warwick and Fudan studied a wide range of data. This included clinical interviews, cognitive tests, mental and behavioural assessments, and brain scans – involving teenagers who began reading for pleasure at an early age (between two and nine), and others who took up reading later, or not at all.
Nearly half of the participants (48%) in the study, published in the journal “Psychology Medicine”, had read little for pleasure or had only started to do so later in their childhood. The other half spent between three and 10 years reading for pleasure.
12 hours a week
Brain scans of the adolescents enabled the scientists to observe that those who had begun reading for pleasure at an early age had moderately larger total brain areas and volumes than their peers who got into leisure reading later.
This phenomenon was particularly noticeable in brain regions that play an essential role in cognitive functions, and those linked to improved mental health, behaviour, and attention.
What’s more, the researchers found that teenagers who had started reading for pleasure in childhood performed better than others, not only at school but also on cognitive tests measuring verbal learning, memory, and speech development.
In addition, they showed fewer signs of stress and depression than their peers who had discovered the joys of reading later in childhood, and had fewer behavioural problems.
For study co-author Barbara Sahakian, these findings show that reading is not a trivial pastime. “It isn’t just a pleasurable experience – it’s widely accepted that reading inspires thinking and creativity, increases empathy, and reduces stress,” she said.
“On top of this, we found significant evidence that it’s linked to important developmental factors in children, improving their cognition, mental health, and brain structure, which are cornerstones for future learning and wellbeing.”
Children don’t need to spend hours a day with their nose in a book to benefit from the effects described by the researchers – 12 hours a week is optimal, it seems.
The researchers also note that the benefits of leisure reading gradually diminish in young people, which they associate with the adverse effects of a sedentary lifestyle.