Forget flowers, decadent chocolates and the other usual signs of affection. If you want to do something heart-worthy this Valentine’s Day, just read a book. Or give one as a gift.

In a study at the University of Sussex in England, a group of subjects underwent a series of exercises and tests to boost their stress levels and heart rate. Then they took on various activities. The levels were cut by 42% after taking a walk, by 54% after having a cup of tea or coffee, and by 61% after listening to music. All of that paled compared to reading a book, which cut stress levels by 68%.

Dr. David Lewis, a cognitive neuropsychologist, said the study participants only needed to read for six minutes to slow the heart rate and ease muscular tension, to levels lower than at the start of the experiment.

“Losing yourself in a book is the ultimate relaxation,” said Dr. Lewis, allowing readers “to enter what is essentially an altered state of consciousness.”

That’s not the only research to show how reading is good for our physical and psychological health.

One study reported in the journal Neurology showed that regular book readers have slower rates of decline in memory. Another Yale study tracked 5,600 participants over time and found that book readers had a 20% lower risk of dying over a 12-year period compared with people who weren’t readers or who read magazines but not books.

At Stanford, a novel study involved neurobiologists, radiologists and humanities scholars. They had people read Jane Austen inside an MRI machine while their brains were scanned. Researchers found a significant and unanticipated increase in blood flow to regions of the brain beyond those that we normally associated with paying close attention to a task (executive function). So the brains were getting a great workout.

Reading is learning. It’s no surprise that our knowledge and opinions are shaped by the pastime, but we can also improve at reading people.

At the University of Toronto, Keith Oatley, a professor emeritus of cognitive psychology, studied the impact of immersing ourselves in fictional lives and other worlds. He had subjects look at photos of strangers’ eyes and infer their situation. The more fiction that people read, the better they were at the challenge.

Oatley has said that reading “enhances our abilities to empathize with other people and connect with something larger than ourselves.”

In other words, reading can make us act with more, well, heart.

Stuart Foxman is a Toronto-based freelance writer, who helps clients’ products, services, ideas and organizations to come alive. Follow me on Twitter @StuartFoxman, connect with me here on LinkedIn, or check me out at I would love to hear from you. More articles like this coming, with original posts every week about communications, writing, branding, creativity, media, marketing, persuasion, messages, etc., etc.

February 14, 2018

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