The idea that reading makes you smarter is something that almost everyone has heard over and over again growing up, which is why a lot of people scoff at the idea. However, in this case, our moms were definitely right. You also don’t have to read technical manuals for fun to get all of the benefits of reading, either. You can read fiction that you actually enjoy, and you’ll still get the benefits of reading.
When you read, you are literally translating the text into images and into other sensory details. You are trying to imagine the images in your head. Words are just patterns of marks on the page. You are mentally processing all of these patterns, which will help with your pattern recognition skills. However, when it comes to fiction, it sometimes goes even further than that.
When you read fiction, you are getting a glimpse into the contents of someone else’s mind. The writer has created a new world for you to explore, and you are imagining that world and projecting yourself into it in many different ways. You are trying to understand the protagonist of the novel in many different ways, and that requires analyzing his or her interior monologue contents and his or her actions, and trying to develop a mental model of this person as a result.
Socializing in general actually helps exercise your brain a lot, contrary to popular belief. Other people’s ideas and personality traits are going to challenge you mentally. While a lot of people think of reading as the sort of thing that primarily introverts do, when you read a work of fiction, you really are interacting with someone socially. You are interacting with their ideas. You are spending time in a world full of characters that they have created. You are getting to look inside their heads, to a certain extent, in addition to looking inside the heads of the characters that they have created. You get all of the cognitive benefits of socializing, in addition to all of the cognitive benefits of reading through pattern recognition and translating the text of a book into images and feelings inside your own mind.
Obviously, some books are going to be more mentally stimulating and challenging than others. Books full of sentences that are long and that have long words are going to be more cognitively stimulating than the books that have short, simple sentences. Books that are full of surprising turns of events and books that keep you guessing are going to exercise your brain more than books that seem so predictable that you will feel as if you already read them before you even start reading. However, even those books are going to stimulate your brain more than a lot of other activities.
If you’re like me and you spend a lot of time writing about the books you read and analyzing the characters, themes, and plot devices, you’re going to stimulate your brain even when you’re not actually reading the book. Writing is an active process, and analysis is a particularly active process that often requires you to use a lot of your brain in the process of going about it.