I love to read. Recently, I’ve noticed three different styles of reading and delved into the different benefits derived from each. Whether I am reading fast, or reading slow, my brain is getting a workout. But there are different benefits for different styles of reading, just as there are distinctive advantages for the types of literature we chose to consume.

Reading fast

Did you know that sometimes, we can’t help but read words presented to us? A giant billboard on your way to work, clearly printed simple sentences with familiar information, and short evocative words flashed across a screen for milliseconds are subconsciously consumed by our brains without us even knowing.
This fast kind of reading isn’t consciously remembered, but it does leave an impact on our brains.

It can prime us to behave in certain ways for a short period after reading, induce a particular mood, or prompt us to make associations and assumptions we may otherwise have not. A similar thing happens when we consciously read fast.

Quickly finishing an article in a magazine as your train approaches your station, or skim reading a blog for specific information will deliver much more to your mind than you are consciously aware of. Daniel Kahneman attributes much of this brain activity to what he describes as ‘System 1 thinking’. This is the function of our mind that is intuitive, largely unconscious and cannot be switched off.

The impressions gained from fast reading and ‘System 1’ inputs create impulses and connections that can last for a few hours or a lifetime, depending on how often the stimulus is repeated. A great example would be you passing a billboard each day that tells you “If you lived HERE, you’d be home by now”. You’d probably be aware of the sign the first few times you drive past, but after a year or so most people wouldn’t consciously read it. However, the repeated message is likely to form within you a desire to live closer to your place of work and cut your commute time.

Fast reading delivers information to your brain in a way that can be difficult to retrieve later. The more time that lapses between reading an article, blog or billboard, the less likely you are to actively remember it. That’s unless you discuss the information with someone, write about it, or re-read the words.

Reading at a comfortable pace

Fiction is like a holiday trapped between two covers. When picking up a good fiction book, you embark on a journey to a different world, time or place. There is no need to take notes, you’ll follow the plot, become friends with the characters and easily remember the details of their journey through the story.

It’s hugely enjoyable to get lost in a work of fiction. But what happens while you’re taking time away from reality?

All the while you’re reading, your brain is busy, not only interpreting the shapes on the page into understandable words, concepts and feelings.

Connections in the central fissure and left temporal cortex are being made. The part of our brain responsible for controlling memories related to facts, facial and object recognition and understanding and using language is engaged (no big surprises there). What is surprising is that this area shows additional connectivity even when we’ve put down the book. In fact, there is additional activity in this region of the brain five days after reading those chapters.

Meanwhile, the central fissure, responsible for sensation (pressure, pain, cold, etc.) and separating the sensory and motor areas of our brain also experiences change and these sensations can be assimilated and remain with us long-term. This could be why even when we don’t remember the details of a novel, the feelings it evoked remain with us.

Novels are also known to build empathy and reduce our need for cognitive closure. This is a social psychology term for our natural aversion to uncertainty and desire for straight-forward situations and definite answers to questions.

Each of us embodies a tendency to need closure in varying degrees and it changes with the situation or mood we’re in. A high need for cognitive closure can adversely impact productivity by prompting us to rush decisions and be impatient. It’s also been shown to lower creativity. But it does have some up-sides, it can help us stay focused and solve problems under stress.

Man studying books at a library

Reading slow

Earlier this year, I was lucky enough to land my dream job. I read books for a living, taking notes and when finished write a short summary of the work. Each of the books are works of non-fiction, covering many different topics. Some I have a natural affinity for, others less so. All of them I read slowly, taking notes as I go and regularly stopping to consider the text and information being imparted.

While reading fiction improves our ability to be open-minded, creative and better communicators with others and ourselves; non-fiction is valuable for learning new skills and understanding concepts that are foreign to us and our experience.

From biographies to textbooks, non-fiction works enhance our brain in similar yet different ways to fiction.

Valuable real-life lessons can be learned from non-fiction books. Although they take more concentration to read and may be drier than the Sahara, the information contained within the covers will enhance your understanding of the physical world and the history leading up to the present moment.

Because non-fiction is a little harder to read than a rollicking novel that takes you on a mental trip, you’ll develop better concentration and begin to be able to sustain it for longer and longer periods.

The analytical skills and memory function needed to read and understand a text book, self-help tome or other non-fiction work provides an intellectual workout that is unlike the exercise you get from fiction. It’s a little like non-impact sports versus high impact sports. Each have great value for your body, just as fiction and non-fiction have immense value for your brain’s health.

Many of the world’s most successful people consume mountains of non-fiction works each year. It keeps them at the top of their game and ahead of the pack.

Interestingly, Elon Musk, touted as one of the smartest people of our time, credits most of his learning for SpaceX to voraciously reading about astrophysics, rocketry and propulsion. He started by understanding the core principles and then consuming related topics from books. He built a relational tree of knowledge about topics of interest from a bunch of non-fiction books.

I suspect he had a hefty helping of fiction mixed in too.

Fiction and non-fiction have been found to be good brain exercise for staving off dementia and other degenerative brain maladies as well as building the ol’ grey matter throughout our lives.

Fiction is a doorway to better understanding yourself, others, and tapping into your creativity. Non-fiction is a great way to keep learning new things and how to apply various practices and concepts in your life. Fast reading can change your perspective without you even being aware it is happening.

ALL reading will build your brain and make you smarter. If reading isn’t something you naturally enjoy, start out with something you’re more likely to become immersed in — even if it’s a comic or graphic novel. You’ll gradually strengthen your neural pathways so that enjoyment grows. Your future self will thank you if you develop a varied diet of types and styles of reading. You’ll be much more interesting to chat with too. So, go visit the library, beg, borrow or buy a book you’d like. You have nothing to lose and SO MUCH to gain.