There is a fair amount of evidence that reading is good for the brain. One of the reasons is that reading narratives and having to get into the characters’ heads helps to build empathy in real life.
Improved theory of mind comes primarily from reading narratives, research suggests. One meta-analysis published by Raymond A. Mar of Toronto’s York University reviews many of the studies demonstrating the effect of story comprehension on theory of mind, and concludes that the better we understand the events in a narrative, the better we are able to understand the actions and intentions of those around us. The kinds of narratives we read, moreover, might also make a difference. One study, conducted by psychologists David Comer Kidd and Emanuele Castano of the New School for Social Research, tested the effect of differences in writing quality on empathy responses, randomly assigning 1,000 participants excerpts from both popular bestsellers and literary fiction.
The type of writing appears to matter, with more literary fiction helping more than best-sellers or non-fiction. A piece of good news is that audiobooks seem to be fine. The article doesn’t get into electronic vs. paper forms of reading, or reading vs. television or video games. It does quote one neuroscientist who questions whether reading is really special compared to other forms of experience.
One hypothesis I have, based on my own experience with people who can’t read in two different corners of the world, is that reading could change the nature of a person’s verbal skills, and not necessarily for the better. People who can’t read sometimes have the “gift of gab”, are good storytellers, and are good at teaching children to speak their native language. And similar to teaching small children, they can be incredibly patient with illiterate foreigners like myself, where an educated person would not have the patience, or somehow, maybe not have the empathy, to do that. So while I think reading and writing and certainly very important to our species, they also may have changed us along the way.