Science Says Growing Up Around This One Thing May Have Been Really Good For Your Brain

One day I aspire to own a house with a room spacious enough to convert into a library. Growing up, there wasn’t a single table or shelf that wasn’t adorned with either a classic hardcover, or paperbacks borrowed from the library that week. My mother is a reader, as are both of my sisters, and naturally, I followed suit. As a reflection of my family’s bookish qualities, I was fortunate enough to reap the benefits of growing up around books from the time I could pronounce words and string sentences together. Reading opened my eyes to new worlds, fresh perspectives, but also to information I might otherwise never have picked up on had it not been for my constant exposure to storytelling. And according to new research, reading will continue to benefit me for, yes, as long as I read, but also just as long as I keep surrounding myself with books.

Up until now, it’s basically been considered common knowledge that, if you grew up in an environment where books were valued, and you were encouraged to read, the more likely it was that being around books played a role in your academic performance. In fact, a 20-year international study, published in the academic journal Research in Social Stratification and Mobility back in 2010, found that growing up in a home with even just 20 books on the shelf is linked to improved academic performance. But how can growing up with books around the house benefit you beyond graduation?

For the study, which has been published in the academic journal Social Science Research, researchers analyzed data pulled from surveys conducted between 2011 and 2015 by the Programme for the International Assessment of Competencies. The questionnaires were completed by adults ages 25 to 65 from 31 different countries, including the United States, Canada, Australia, Singapore, and Turkey.

According to Pacific Standard, the questions were designed to pinpoint what the benefits of growing up around books are, as well as how these benefits could have a positive effect in the long-term. Participants were first asked to estimate how many books were in their house at 16 years old; answers ranged from less than 10 to more than 500. From there, Pacific Standard reports, they were each assigned a series of proficiency tests to analyze their comprehension and mathematical skills.

In the end, the researchers found that those who had grown up in homes with packed bookshelves were more advanced in both literacy and math than those whose childhood homes contained fewer books — but what’s especially interesting about this study is that it only accounted for tangible volumes, rather than digital content or audiobooks. So now the question is, as technology advances, and more people choose to read from their Kindles and smartphones rather than pick up a physical book, can digital forms of reading yield the same benefits?

Personally, I've always preferred tangible books to digital readers. To me, there’s just nothing better than browsing through a bookstore, grazing the spines of every volume on the shelf, flipping through pages, and feeling the weight of a story in your hands. I’ve never owned a Kindle, or a Nook, and I never will, because all those times I’ll crack open a hardcover, or bend the corner of a page that inspires me, are timeless and valuable on an extremely emotional level. And, OK, maybe this is the literature major in me talking, because of course there’s nothing wrong with e-readers if that’s the route you prefer, but I know I’m not alone in doubting if digital copies are as beneficial as physical texts.

On the one hand, these portable devices give you the opportunity to literally carry a book — or, hell, an entire library — with you wherever you go. But on the other hand, swapping hard copy for ink on a screen wipes away the nostalgia factor. What’s more, millennials are always on their phones as it is, and constant scrolling through social media has been linked to shortened attention spans, according to research published in the medical journal JAMA. So, if the book you’re reading is on your phone, you could have a hard time concentrating on the text for long periods of time — in other words, despite your multitasking skills, you might not be processing the information as well as you think you are. I don't mean to be Captain Obvious here, but think about it: If you can't absorb the information, what can you actually learn from it?

At the end of the day, though, whether you're #TeamPaperback or pro e-reader, it's important to surround yourself with stories. Pick up a novel or skim through the newspaper, read your favorite magazine, or just browse the shelves at a local bookstore for fun. The simple act of being surrounded by literature can be inspiring, but it's up to you to soak in the works.