Reading Before Bed

The Benefits and Drawbacks

A large percentage of people end their nightly bedtime rituals by laying down with some sort of reading material. These days there are many different forms that reading materials can assume, but the gold standard is still a good old-fashioned book. It is a commonly held fact that reading before bed can help the sleeper drift off into a peaceful slumber, but is this really true?

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The Studied Benefits of Reading

While there has been a marked increase in the percentage of people who have reportedly read a book in the previous year since 2011, 26% of Americans have not read even a portion of a book in the past year. So that begs the question: why should these people even try to read?

There have been several well regarded studies on the effects that reading has on those that take part in it. While it is hardly surprising, one study found a correlation between the amount of reading someone does and their vocabulary. Obviously the more you read, the more often you encounter new words and phrases that might increase your understanding of a language.

Another highly cited study led by Dr. David Lewis at the University of Sussex in England found that reading was far more effective at reducing stress levels than a litany of other activities. According to the findings,

“[Reading is] 68% better at reducing stress levels than listening to music; 100% more effective than drinking a cup of tea; 300% better than going for a walk and 700% more than playing video games. Reading for as little as 6 minutes is sufficient to reduce stress levels by 60%, slowing heart beat, easing muscle tension and altering the state of mind.”

In terms of whether or not reading has any benefit to those trying to ease themselves asleep, this is strong evidence. When your heart rate slows and muscles ease into relaxation, sleep becomes easier to attain and much less of a problem.

Reading has also been found to lower the incidence of dementia, enhances relationships, and readers tend to have higher incomes. If these aren’t enough of a benefit, then this last one should might just push people to increase their literary consumption. But one of the most interesting benefits of reading surrounds our relation to the world around us.

The power of understanding and communication is something that many strive for, and one of the most important parts of that understanding is empathy. Several studies have found that reading fiction can increase the capabilities of people to understand other’s emotional and mental states. The reading of fiction specifically can have a positive effect on something called Theory of Mind.

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“Theory of Mind is the human capacity to comprehend that other people hold beliefs and desires and that these may differ from one’s own beliefs and desires. The currently predominant view is that literary fiction—often described as narratives that focus on in-depth portrayals of subjects’ inner feelings and thoughts—can be linked to theory of mind processes, especially those that are involved in the understanding or simulation of the effective characteristics of the subjects”

David Comer Kidd, Emanuele Castano
Science  18 Oct 2013:
Vol. 342, Issue 6156, pp. 377-380

So, now that you are convinced to start reading before you turn out the lights, why not just snuggle up with your kindle or ipad?

Paper or Pixel?

Over the past few decades technology has grown exponentially, and the way in which we consume and interact with information has been altered and (in many instances) amplified because of this. Paper has been all but replaced by glass and plastic. Ink has been replaced by pixels. Words have been replaced code. But what effects can these technologies filling our daily lives have on our physical, mental and emotional well being?

Several scientific investigations have looked into the differences between reading a traditional paper and ink book and using something like an ereader or tablet. While devices like the kindle and ipad have almost certainly brought literature into the 21st century, the physiological effects that these technologies have on our brain and bodies are actually quite different from the nightstand paperbacks of yesteryear.

In a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences back in 2014, Anne Marie Chang et al. found that the evening use of light-emitting eReaders negatively affects sleep, circadian timing, and next-morning alertness. This was so true that they titled their findings Evening use of light-emitting eReaders negatively affects sleep, circadian timing, and next-morning alertness. Basically Chang discovered that reading from one of these devices decreases natural production of melatonin, significantly alters REM sleep, and delays the Circadian Clock. This of course leads to a grumpy awakening.

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“Overall, we found that the use of portable light-emitting devices immediately before bedtime has biological effects that may perpetuate sleep deficiency and disrupt circadian rhythms, both of which can have adverse impacts on performance, health, and safety.”

Anne-Marie Chang, Daniel Aeschbach, Jeanne F. Duffy, and Charles A. Czeisler
PNAS 2015 112 (4) 1232-1237; published ahead of print December 22, 2014,

Our Recommendations

So, on the whole, we really recommend reading before bed, but not from a light emitting device. There are certainly ereaders that do not emit light or at least can have the light turned off or down, but the study into the effects these devices have is still in its infancy. While it is most likely that it is the blue light blasting into your face that produces these negative effects, there is also no replacing the tactile sensations of turning a page.

Our recommendation is to find stories that take you away, and buy a physical copy for your nightstand. Mass-Market Paperbacks are usually less than $10, and if you are ready to invest in a better night’s sleep, well why wouldn’t you try this? Better yet, get a library card and borrow them for free from your local repository.

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