Does reading make you smarter?

Last updated 12:12 05/02/2013

Does reading make you smarter? I stumbled across this article by the Harvard Business Review from last year that says resoundingly - yes.

Apparently, though global literacy rates are high, standing at 84%, bibliophiles are becoming a rare breed because people tend to read less deeply. It seems that reading as a leisure time activity is perhaps kinda passe. reading makes you smart

I can only speculate as to why, but the easy availability of technology as a form of entertainment which doesn't require much thought or use of imagination for the average user is probably one of the reasons.

The article goes on to say that not reading is actually a curse for leadership:

"...deep, broad reading habits are often a defining characteristic of our greatest leaders and can catalyse insight, innovation, empathy, and personal effectiveness"

Steve Jobs was apparently a huge William Blake fan and Winston Churchill won a Nobel prize in Literature. Reading across fields can be good for creativity and here's the bit I like best - "reading novels can improve empathy and understanding of social cues, allowing a leader to better work with and understand others".

In effect, it's saying that reading can't save the world, but it sure as heck can make it a better place by making you more intelligent, thoughtful and complex, by giving you the ability to emotionally connect with others and see their point of view, by giving you a cultural context with which to view other societies and in effect, making you more tolerant and understanding of human difference. Intelligence, it is said, is merely the ability to learn. And what better way to learn than read?

There is a lot of talk, especially in marketing circles, about the "gamification" of things. Essentially, the theory goes that you can make people more interested in learning by turning everything into a game (it's fun!). Think of that smartphone game where you have to chart an airplane's route to land it safely into the port, which supposedly will teach you more about mathematics, for example.

I'm not sure I buy that. For one thing, it's impossible for life to be one big bag of fun all the time. How exhausting! I am an avid reader now, but the process of first learning to read did not come easy to me. Family myth has it that I struggled with my letters as a very young child, but I persevered, or was perhaps forced to, and here I am today, a proud bibliophile. The point I'm trying to make with this personal anecdote is that the start of learning anything is always hard - that's what makes the result so worthwhile.

But reading is fun as well, of course, that's why us readers can often get addicted to books to the point that we'll give up on precious hours of sleep and toddle off to work looking like zombies the next day, and still think of reading as the best thing ever. Book clubs where you can wrangle and debate the finer points of a beloved or contentious tome exist for people who like delving beyond the surface level of an initial reading.

This is how reading makes you smarter - it introduces you to new perspectives and at its best and shiniest, makes you feel less alone in the universe, whether the book is a hefty collection of political essays by Noam Chomsky, or a thriller which takes you into the cold, dark mind of a killer.

There is a lot of value placed these days by governments and corporations into educating people in research and the sciences, a lot of investment into IT and offering "practical" training to get young people into jobs. While I'm not a literary romantic to the point that I refuse to see the usefulness of that theory, I also think not encouraging reading in schools, letting literature and the arts slip by the wayside in favour of hordes of hard science grads will, in essence, kill off creativity - and that ability to see the big picture is what separates a competent leader from one who will go down in legend.

The ability to communicate verbally and by writing is improved by reading - let's face it, you can be the smartest cookie on the planet and have a beautiful mind, a brain that works brilliantly, that forms connections between ideas that no-one else has ever thought of before - but what the eff use is that if you can't communicate those ideas in words to others? If they remain as a jumble of unique yet undistillable and hence unexpressed thoughts inside your own head?

It was Papa Einstein who said, "if you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales - if you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales". 

I'll leave you to finish with this Ted talk by philosopher-comedian Emily Levine, who's found a new link between little girls, learning maths and fairy tales: "so you're six years old, you're reading Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, and it becomes rapidly obvious that there are only two kinds of men in the world: dwarves and Prince Charmings. And the odds are seven to one against your finding the prince. That's why little girls don't do math. It's too depressing".

Do you think there is a correlation between reading and intelligence? How? 

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