Reading fiction doesn’t just boost emotional intelligence, concentration, and critical thinking. It also helps prevent memory loss. If you’re a busy entrepreneur, sitting down with a novel might seem like nothing more than a light and enjoyable way to unwind. But science suggests fiction offers our brains a lot more than just distraction and stress relief.
Research suggests that deep, concentrated reading–the kind we do when we sink deeply into a great novel–builds key mental skills like focus and empathy as well as the ability to sift through complicated information and analyze conflicting arguments. Reading doesn’t just fill our brains with images and ideas. It actually rewires how we think about them.
All of which adds up to a good argument for why you may want to join super-achievers like Bill Gates, Barack Obama, and Jeff Bezos and make more time for fiction in your schedule. But if you’re still struggling to make time for literature, perhaps Richard Restak, a neurologist and the author of 20 books on the brain, can convince you. Restak insists novels have one more undersung brain benefit–they also help keep our memories sharp as we age.
The link between fiction and staying sharp as you age
Restak’s new book, The Complete Guide to Memory: The Science of Strengthening Your Mind, is all about combating the kind of everyday memory troubles that plague most of us as we age. He recently spoke to The New York Times about some of his headline advice.
Many of his suggestions will be familiar to anyone who has done even a little reading about how to keep your memory sharp. Mind puzzles are helpful–crosswords are particularly useful, recent research found. Don’t over-rely on technology. Turn that GPS off once in a while. Try to memorize your shopping list and only use notes as a backup. Restak doesn’t mention physical exercise, but approximately a million studies suggest it’s great for your brain as well as your body.
There is no doubt all this is solid advice, but it was Restak’s comments about reading fiction that struck me as freshest.
People, when they begin to have memory difficulties, tend to switch to reading nonfiction, Restak observes.
Why? Because while you can flip through many nonfiction books and profitably read a chunk here and a chunk there, enjoying fiction demands extended attention and the ability to remember what happened at every stage of the story. The reveal of whodunnit on page 200 isn’t going to be much fun if you don’t recall that telling clue you overlooked in Chapter Two.
That makes reading fiction a particularly powerful memory workout. And probably also explains why, over decades in practice, Restak has noticed a strong correlation between continued enjoyment of novels and retaining a sharp memory into your elder years.
The memory workout sitting on your bookshelf
Of course, not every memory problem can be dealt with by brushing up on your Charles Dickens or picking up a page-turner. Restak stresses that if you have serious trouble with your memory, it’s definitely time to consult a professional. (Here’s some advice on how to tell normal airheaded-ness from concerning signs of decline.) Though we all fear more dire diagnoses, common, treatable issues–from depression and vitamin deficiencies to inadequate sleep–can also impact your memory.
But for those of us with garden-variety struggles like lost keys and forgotten names, a pleasant and easy solution may just be waiting for you on your bookshelf.