Getting lost in the pages of a good book is the highest form of entertainment for many people.
If you’re a big reader, you probably already know how easy it is to lose all sense of time when absorbed in an exciting story. “Just a few more pages,” you promise yourself, only to look up several chapters later and realize another hour has slipped by.
Reading might provide a great way to relax (and stay up well past your bedtime), but books offer more than a pleasant diversion. Evidence increasingly stacks up in support of the idea that reading can enhance intelligence.
When you think of intelligence, IQ might be the first thing that comes to mind. IQ tests measure fluid and crystallized intelligence, though many experts now agree that intelligence goes well beyond IQ.
While there’s more than one way to be smart, reading can do a lot to boost your intelligence in these three areas.
Wondering exactly how reading can make you smarter? You’ll find 7 key ways below, plus a few tips on accessing reading materials.
There’s no denying that certain circumstances can limit the ideas you encounter in everyday life.
If you live in a small town, didn’t go to college, and have held the same job for your entire adult life, you may have less general knowledge than someone who went to college, worked several different jobs, or both.
This doesn’t make you unintelligent, of course. Multiple types of intelligence exist, so your strengths might lie in another area, like music, the natural world, or interpersonal skills.
Yet knowledge does play an important part in general intelligence, and reading offers an excellent way to boost your knowledge.
By some reckonings, the world boasts just under 130 million books. That means you have a pretty good chance of finding a book on nearly any topic you can imagine, from philosophical thought to self-compassion to home repair. Even if you don’t enjoy nonfiction, you can expand your knowledge of history and current events with well-researched fiction.
If you have access to books, in short, you can access new concepts and information, no matter where you live or what you do.
Maybe you’ve never had the chance to visit another country or even travel to different regions of your home country. You can still explore other cultures and traditions by simply picking up a book.
Reading creates the opportunity to connect with characters (or real people) who have very different life experiences. Learning more about history, traditions, and everyday life in other parts of the world exposes you to new perspectives, which can help cultivate greater cultural awareness and sensitivity.
What makes this so important? The more you know and understand about other cultures, the less likely you are to hold on to stereotypes or preconceived ideas about the lives of others.
Nonfiction books like memoirs might offer a nuanced picture of one particular person’s life. “The Broken Circle,” for example, details Enjeela Ahmadi’s turbulent escape from Afghanistan during the 1980 Soviet invasion and the sharp contrast in her life before and after.
But fiction can also portray the complexities of society and culture:
When seeking out books about different cultures, look for books written by someone who belongs to a particular culture over those written by outsiders.
Books can also help you work toward anti-racism. Check out our reading list for recommendations.
When you recall your last English or literature class, you probably remember a few deep and meaningful literary works — some more interesting and relevant than others.
No matter how you felt about those assigned books, simply reading them may have had some positive effects on your ability to empathize or understand the emotions and perspectives of other people.
Research from 2013 suggests literary fiction has more benefit for enhancing theory of mind, or the skills that help you create and maintain strong interpersonal relationships, than popular fiction or nonfiction.
One possible explanation may lie in the fact that literary fiction allows you to explore the thoughts and experiences of others. When you read, you accompany characters as they make choices that shape their lives and identities, but you can learn from their mistakes without facing the consequences of those actions.
Reading offers a safe way to explore actions and consequences and gain “experience” that helps strengthen your character. The more you read, the more insight and understanding you’re likely to gain.
Vocabulary and verbal skills fall under the umbrella of general intelligence, and you’re bound to encounter new words each time you open a book.
As your eyes move across the page, you aren’t just picking up new vocabulary. You’re also learning to decipher the meaning of any words you don’t recognize through context clues. This skill can boost language abilities, certainly, but it could also factor into your ability to problem-solve in other areas of life.
Plus, reading printed books can also help you absorb the rules of written grammar and improve your spelling. Listening to audiobooks, on the other hand, may help you get more familiar with the pronunciation of unknown words.
Reading can fuel your imagination by allowing you to envision and explore new and different worlds, real and fantastic. An expanded imagination can, in turn, boost creativity, making it easier to find new and unique solutions to the challenges that come up in everyday life.
Nonfiction works like self-help books, and how-to manuals offer a relatively straightforward approach to solving problems. But it’s also worth considering the connections you can draw between fiction and your own life when following beloved characters through various issues, including:
You may not always get the right answer on the first try. Still, the imagination and creativity you might develop through reading can help you brainstorm new ideas for solutions that support your needs and those of the people you love.
Books put knowledge directly into your hands (or ears, in the case of audiobooks). Yet all the knowledge in the world may have little benefit when you have trouble remembering or processing new information.
Reading can make a difference here, too. The act of reading activates multiple areas of the brain and can increase connectivity in the brain over time.
Engaging your brain by reading regularly can strengthen it throughout your life, which may help lower your chances of facing serious memory loss and other cognitive decline in older adulthood.
Turning your attention to a riveting read might also boost concentration and focus, which doesn’t hurt, either.
Keeping yourself informed about recent happenings in the world can offer a number of benefits:
If you’d like to pay more attention to world events and increase your cultural awareness, you’ll mostly want to stick with nonfiction.
Possible sources include:
Keep in mind: Truly broadening your perspective and worldview means reading information that comes from a range of viewpoints and sources from around the world, rather than just one political group or media outlet.
Maybe you’d love to spend more time reading, but you can’t afford to buy books and have no libraries nearby.
A few ideas to consider:
Intelligence is far from fixed, and reading is just one way you can boost it throughout life.
It doesn’t matter whether you’re wandering down the familiar paths of an old favorite or diving into a completely new world. When you read, you’re doing yourself a favor.
Crystal Raypole has previously worked as a writer and editor for GoodTherapy. Her fields of interest include Asian languages and literature, Japanese translation, cooking, natural sciences, sex positivity, and mental health. In particular, she’s committed to helping decrease stigma around mental health issues.
Last medically reviewed on June 22, 2021