Early engagement in reading for pleasure is associated with improved cognitive performance, positive brain structural changes, and reduced mental health problems in young adolescents, according to new research published in Psychological Medicine. The optimal duration for cognitive benefits seems to be around 12 hours per week.
“My co-authors and I wanted to understand the effects of reading early in childhood on brain structure, cognition, school academic achievement and mental health,” said study author Barbara J. Sahakian, a professor of clinical neuropsychology at the University of Cambridge. “Some of the previously published literature suggested that there should be beneficial effects on cognition, but there had not been a very large scale study, with over 10,000 adolescents before on a broad range of measures together.”
To conduct the study, the researchers analyzed data from the Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development (ABCD) project, which recruited over ten thousand children from various research sites in the United States. The participants were between the ages of 9 and 11 during the baseline data collection and between the ages of 11 and 13 during the follow-up data collection.
The study utilized a combination of methods, including clinical interviews, cognitive tests, mental and behavioral assessments, and brain scans. The researchers analyzed this data to compare young individuals who began reading for pleasure at a young age (between two and nine years old) with those who started later or did not engage in such activities.
The key measurements of early reading for pleasure experiences were obtained from parental reports, including the number of years children engaged in reading for pleasure and the duration of reading for pleasure per week. These measurements were then compared with cognitive assessment scores, psychopathological and behavioral problem scores, and school academic achievement.
The study involved 10,243 participants from the ABCD cohort. Of these, 48.2% rarely engaged in reading for pleasure or started it later in life, and the rest had higher levels of early reading for pleasure.
The researchers found a positive correlation between early reading for pleasure and young adolescents’ cognitive performance scores. This included factors like verbal learning, memory and speech development, and academic achievement. The participants who engaged in early reading for pleasure also tended to have lower levels of mental problems (including psychopathology, impulsivity, and ADHD) along with reduced screen time on electronic devices and increased sleep duration.
“We studied two groups of adolescents, one group had started reading for pleasure at an early age in childhood and the other group had never read for pleasure as a child or had started reading late in childhood,” explained Sahakian. “We studied the brain scans, cognitive test scores, academic performance and mental health symptoms, including anxiety and depression and behaviour, such as aggression and rule-breaking of these two groups of adolescents. The adolescents who had read for pleasure as children at an early age had beneficial effects in all of these measures compared with the adolescents who had never read for pleasure or who had started reading for pleasure late in childhood.”
After examining the brain imaging data, the researchers found that reading for pleasure was associated with increased brain structural attributes, including total brain volume, cortical area, and subcortical regions. Specific brain regions related to language and the visual system showed the most significant increases. These structural changes were also linked to improved cognitive performance and reduced psychopathological symptoms.
“Reading isn’t just a pleasurable experience – it’s widely accepted that it inspires thinking and creativity, increases empathy and reduces stress,” Sahakian told PsyPost. “But on top of this, we found significant evidence that it’s linked to important developmental factors in children, improving their cognition, mental health, and brain structure, which are cornerstones for future learning and well-being.”
“We hope that parents, teachers and governments will focus on reading for pleasure in early childhood and use this intervention at home, in play groups and in primary schools. Not only is reading for pleasure enjoyable for young children, but it stimulates creative thinking, imagination and speech and language through discussion of the pictures and stories.”
The researchers used a twin analysis to measure heritability. They found that early reading for pleasure had moderate heritability but shared environmental factors also played a significant role in participants’ reading habits. Genetic factors were also identified in cognitive performance, attention problems, and brain structure. Importantly, a Mendelian randomization (MR) analysis indicated a causal relationship between early reading for pleasure and better cognitive performance.
The study suggested an optimal reading for pleasure duration of around 12 hours per week for maximum cognitive benefits. Engaging in more than this optimal duration did not lead to additional cognitive benefits.
“The peak effect is seen at reading for 12 hours per week,” Sahakian said. “However, examining our study findings shows that the effects seem to begin to appear at about 4 hours of reading per week. Also, it seems that there is not much difference in the effects obtained between reading for 8 hours per week and 12 hours per week.”
The findings highlight the potential benefits of fostering a love for reading at a young age. Making enjoyable learning initiatives and support available to a wide range of young populations could have significant positive effects on various aspects of development. By introducing such initiatives early, there is a potential for these benefits to extend not only to cognition and mental health but also to well-being, school achievement, and beyond into adolescence and adulthood.
“Our brains are still in development through late adolescence and early young adulthood, therefore adolescence is an important topic for study as we want to ensure that all adolescents have good brain health, cognition and wellbeing,” Sahakian said. “Adolescence is the transition between being a child to becoming an adult and so interventions in childhood that are beneficial for cognition, school academic attainment and mental health are extremely important.”
“Many mental health disorders begin in childhood or adolescence, so improving mental health during these developmental periods is crucial. We were very pleased, but also a bit surprised, that reading for pleasure in childhood, which is a relatively low-cost intervention, could have such a broad beneficial impact for adolescents.”
Professor Jianfeng Feng from Fudan University and the University of Warwick added: “We encourage parents to do their best to awaken the joy of reading in their children at an early age. Done right, this will not only give them pleasure and enjoyment, but will also help their development and encourage long-term reading habits, which may also prove beneficial into adult life.”
The study, “Early-initiated childhood reading for pleasure: associations with better cognitive performance, mental well-being and brain structure in young adolescence“, was authored by Yun-Jun Sun, Barbara J. Sahakian, Christelle Langley, Anyi Yang, Yuchao Jiang, Jujiao Kang, Xingming Zhao, Chunhe Li, Wei Cheng, and Jianfeng Feng.