What Does Reading Before Bed Do to an Adult’s Brain?
6 min read
Last Modified 21 December 2022 First Added 4 February 2017
Reading before bed is an age-old tradition. Some people can’t sleep without reading, but for others, the bedtime story is left in their childhood. In recent times, reading interest has surged enormously. Whether it’s because people are running out of hobbies to try when they’re stuck at home or because they’re looking to expand their vocabulary is up for debate. Yet, the key question still remains: can the practise of reading before bedtime be beneficial? We explore how it affects the brain and see what the experts have to say.
Reading before you sleep could relax you significantly. A study highlighted in the Telegraph by the University of Sussex raised a number of participants’ stress levels and then attempted to reduce them. Cognitive Neuropsychologist Dr David Lewis found that ‘reading worked best, reducing stress levels by 68 per cent’. It was better than listening to music (61%), drinking tea or coffee (54%) and taking a walk (42%). It only took 6 minutes for participants’ stress levels to be reduced.
This is because, when reading a good book, your mind is distracted from daily stresses and worries that cause tension. Stories give your mind the option to be somewhere else for a little while. This means you can leave your own troubles behind. Reading also allows your muscles to relax and slows down your breathing, leaving you feeling calmer.
So how does this affect your sleep? The Sleep Council say ‘39% of people who are in the habit of reading before they go to sleep, sleep very well’. It makes perfect sense that an activity that reduces stress is beneficial before bed. Reading is also a better alternative to watching TV or scrolling through your phone. These emit blue light which tricks your brain into thinking it’s daytime. This is why 49% of Brits prefer to read a book than watch TV before bed and couldn’t go to sleep without a chapter of their current book.
As well as opening your eyes to a million other worlds, reading can boost your brainpower. Your brain is a muscle too, and just like the rest of the body, it needs a workout to keep it healthy. Reading is more neurologically challenging than speaking or processing images. Ken Hugh, PhD, president and director of research at Haskins Laboratories says ‘parts of the brain that have evolved for other functions—such as vision, language, and associative learning—connect in a specific neural circuit for reading, which is very challenging’. This means that reading is a great way to work out your brain whilst doing something enjoyable simultaneously.
Another amazing benefit of reading is that it can reduce the risk of developing the degenerative disease, Alzheimer’s. A study found that people who engage their brains in an activity such as reading, solving puzzles or playing chess are 2.5 times less likely to develop the illness. This is likely due to the fact that Alzheimer’s disease is often linked to patients who have limited brain activity. Reading could not only improve your well-being now but could also have a lasting effect on your health in years to come.
It’s no surprise that reading from a creative stimulus increases your own creativity. By reading books you are able to see things from different perspectives which broadens your mind. Emeritus Professor at the University of Toronto, Keith E. Stanovich is a leading researcher in the psychology of reading. In the study, Does Reading Make You Smarter, he says, ‘Certainly, our data demonstrate time and again that print exposure is associated with vocabulary, general knowledge, and verbal skills even after controlling for abstract reasoning abilities.’ We can see an improvement in all of these things ourselves just by reading books. Reading to children is extremely important also, so the benefits of bedtime stories can impact them hugely. Children are exposed to 50% more words from books than they would be from TV. Reading to your child is the perfect way to enhance their vocabulary without it feeling like a lesson.
As we have discussed a lot above, reading influences your brain in many ways. Yet, despite the ability to stimulate it, it can also make it sleepy. How is this possible? Well, when you’re reading, your eye muscles are having to quickly scan in a very patterned way, moving from left to right. Not only is micro eye movement occurring but the focus is too. After all, if you’re not focusing on the words, sentences, and paragraphs in front of you, you could lose track of where you are. Because all these smaller movements are happening, the body can become tired as you exercise your muscles more and more, eventually leading to your eyes closing altogether (and staying shut if you proceed to nod off!).
Another way reading can make you sleepy is if you’re performing the activity in a location associated with sleep, i.e. your bed. It can be tempting to snuggle up in your duvet and delve into a good book, but it may result in an accidental descent into your own dreamy, fictitious world. This happens because your body has conditioned itself to associate that place with sleep. So when your muscles begin to relax, a domino effect may occur as your body slowly enters sleep mode against your will! The trick here is to select a spot for reading, such as a chair or a sofa. Create positive associations and you should be able to read and focus for hours.
Reading can also make you a more empathetic person. Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. What better way to improve that skill than by reading from someone else’s point of view? In books, we see the world through someone else’s eyes and feel their feelings with them. Applying this skill in real life is a lot easier when we’ve had the practice. Reading not only boosts our intelligence but also makes us more understanding of other people. So, what are you waiting for? Get reading!