Can reading a book really bring relaxation? | Right away

Distraction from worries can certainly be very nice during the Corona crisis. Can reading a book help you relax?

Just crawl into another world, forget everything around you: you often hear it when it comes to reading. From research (Pdf) among Dutch people who read, it turns out that 85 percent found their last reading experience relaxed, says Jette van den Eijnden, a research associate at stichting Lezen.

Readers find particularly relaxed in exciting fiction (91 percent), then in fantasy and science fiction (87 percent) and literature (81 percent).

A preliminary study by the University of Sussex in 2009 suggests that reading actually lowers stress levels. “It’s an escape from a world of stress,” says Jacqueline Bel, a professor of Dutch literature. “You focus on something, time goes faster, you get away from reality. This reduces mental and physical tension, according to this study.”

“Your brain has to work on its own”

Maryanne Wolf, a researcher in the field of reading and the brain, finds that when reading, the pause button is often pressed, says Bel. “When they listen to music or watch a movie, this button is not pressed so quickly. That’s because you’re active in reading and not just passively doing something.””

“Stories have been relaxing for people for centuries, in every form.”

Roel Willems, researcher Radboud University

For relaxation, it is indeed important that what you do is not too easy, says Roel Willems, a researcher in the field of language and the brain at Radboud University nijmegen. “It’s important how a story works. In good books and also in good series, your brain has to start filling, thinking and puzzle the gaps.”

That’s how our brains like it, says Willems. “They don’t benefit so much from not doing anything for relaxation. Compare it to lying on the bed or change your mind with some housework. Or with dreams: a process in which your brain actively wilts.”

Literally entering a different world

Reading can also lead to calm and decreased negative emotions in people who have experienced a difficult life event, according to Research Literary scholar Emy Koopman.

“When you read fiction, your brain reacts the same way when you experience something yourself.”

Roel Willems, researcher Radboud University

“You delve into characters, times and perspectives,” says bel. “Then you forget it here and now quickly.”

“What’s very interesting is that when you read fiction, your brain reacts the same way you do when you’re actually experiencing something,” Willems says. “Even the motor parts of your brain become active when you read that someone is playing football or running to the train. It is therefore literally true that you can enter another world by reading.”


When you read a book, you dive into other times. (Photo: Peter Trompetter)

Reading, listening or watching: it’s all about the story

If you don’t like reading, can it still be relaxing? “Something shouldn’t be too difficult to relax,” says Willems. “Read it shouldn’t. The beauty is that everything relaxes with a good story. Whether you’re reading, listening to or watching it. Netflix also has series with a rocky storyline.”

The story is the same with time, says the researcher. “We haven’t even read that long, but we had the troubadour telling stories. Stories have been relaxing for people for centuries, in every form.”