We’re All Reading Wrong

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Reading, while not technically medicine, is a fundamentally wholesome activity. It can prevent cognitive decline, improve sleep, and lower blood pressure. In one study, book readers outlived their nonreading peers by nearly two years. People have intuitively understood reading’s benefits for thousands of years: The earliest known library, in ancient Egypt, bore an inscription that read The house of healing for the soul.

But the ancients read differently than we do today. Until approximately the tenth century, when the practice of silent reading expanded thanks to the invention of punctuation, reading was synonymous with reading aloud. Silent reading was terribly strange, and, frankly, missed the point of sharing words to entertain, educate, and bond. Even in the 20th century, before radio and TV and smartphones and streaming entered American living rooms, couples once approached the evening hours by reading aloud to each other.

But what those earlier readers didn’t yet know was that all of that verbal reading offered additional benefits: It can boost the reader’s mood and ability to recall. It can lower parents’ stress and increase their warmth and sensitivity toward their children. To reap the full benefits of reading, we should be doing it out loud, all the time, with everyone we know.

Reading aloud is a distinctive cognitive process, more complex than simply reading silently, speaking, or listening. Noah Forrin, who researched memory and reading at the University of Waterloo, in Canada, told me that it involves several operations—motor control, hearing , and self-reference (the fact that you said it)—all of which activate the hippocampus, a brain region associated with episodic memory. Compared with reading silently, the hippocampus is more active while reading aloud, which might help explain why the latter is such an effective memory tool. In a small 2012 study, students who studied a word list remembered 90 percent of the words they’d read aloud immediately afterward, compared with 71 percent of those they’d read silently. (One week later, participants remembered 59 percent of the spoken words and 48 percent of the words read silently.)

So although you might enjoy an audiobook narrated by Meryl Streep, you would remember it better if you read parts of it out loud—especially if you did so in small chunks, just a short passage at a time, Forrin said. The same goes for a few lines of a presentation that you really want to nail. Those memory benefits hold true whether or not anyone is around to hear your performance.

Verbal reading without an audience is, in fact, surprisingly common. While studying how modern British people read aloud, Sam Duncan, a professor of adult literacies at University College London, found that they read aloud—and alone—for a variety of reasons. One woman recited Welsh poetry to remember her mother, with whom she spoke Welsh as a girl. One young man read the Quran out loud before work to better understand its meaning. Repeating words aloud isn’t just key to memorization, Duncan told me—it can be key to identity formation too.

[From the August 1904 issue: On reading aloud]

Plenty of solitary vocal reading no doubt consists of deciphering recipes and proofreading work emails, but if you want to reap the full perks, the best selections are poetry and literature. These genres provide access to facets of human experience that can be otherwise unreachable, which helps us process our own emotions and memories, says Philip Davis, an emeritus professor of literature and psychology at the University of Liverpool. Poetry, for example, can induce peak emotional responses, a strong reaction that might include goose bumps or chills. It can help you locate an emotion within yourself, which is important to health as a form of emotional processing.

Poetry also contains complex, unexpected elements, like when Shakespeare uses god as a verb in Coriolanus: “This last old man … godded me.” In an fMRI study that Davis co-authored in 2015, such literary surprise was shown to be stimulating to the brain. Davis told me that literature, with its “mixture of memory and imagination,” can cause us to recall our most complex experiences and derive meaning from them. A poem or story read aloud is particularly enthralling, he said, because it becomes a live presence in the room, with a more direct and penetrative quality, akin to live music. Davis likens the role of literature and live reading to a spark or renewal, “a bringing of things back to life.”

Discussing the literature that you read aloud can be particularly valuable. Davis told me doing so helps penetrate rigid thinking and can dislodge dysfunctional thought patterns. A qualitative study he co-authored in 2017 found that, for those who have chronic pain and the depression that tends to come with it, such discussion expands emotional vocabulary—a key tenet of psychological well-being—perhaps even more so than cognitive behavioral therapy. (The allure of an audience has one notable exception: If you’re anxious, reading aloud can actually reduce memory and comprehension. To understand this effect, one need only harken back to fifth grade when it was your turn to read a paragraph on Mesopotamia in class.)

[Read: How to keep your book club from becoming a wine club]

The health benefits of reading aloud are so profound that some doctors in England now refer their chronic-pain patients to read-aloud groups. Helen Cook, a 45-year-old former teacher in England, joined one of these groups in 2013. Cook had a pelvic tumor that had sent anguish ricocheting through her hip and back for a decade, and medication never seemed to help. Before she joined the reading group, Cook had trouble sleeping, lost her job, and “had completely lost myself,” she told me. Then, she and nine other adults began working their way through some 300 pages of Hard Times, by Charles Dickens.

Cook told me she recognized her experience in the characters’ travails, and within months, she “rediscovered a love for life,” even returning to college for a master’s degree in literature. She’s not the only one who found relief: In Davis’s 2017 study, everyone who read aloud in a group felt emotionally better and reported less pain for two days afterward.

Hearing words read aloud to you also has unique advantages, especially for kids. Storytelling has been shown to increase hospitalized children’s levels of oxytocin while decreasing cortisol and pain. Julie Hunter, who for more than 20 years has taught preschool kids (including my daughter), told me that interactive reading increases young children’s comprehension, builds trust, and enhances social-emotional skills. A recent study by researchers at the Brookings Institution found that children smiled and laughed more when being read to by a parent than when listening to an automatically narrated book alone.

[Read: An ode to being read to]

Anecdotal evidence suggests that adults, too, can benefit from such listening. For 25 years, Hedrick and Susan Smith, ages 90 and 84, respectively, have read more than 170 books aloud. They started by reading in the car, to pass the time, but it was so much fun that they started reading every night before they turned out the light, Hedrick told me. Together, they tried to comprehend One Hundred Years of Solitude, narrated Angela’s Ashes in four different Irish accents, and deduced clues in John le Carré thrillers. They felt more connected, and went to sleep in brighter moods. If they liked the book, they couldn’t wait for the other to read the next chapter aloud—even, and perhaps especially, when the sound of the other’s voice sent them off to sleep.

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