Reading is a rapidly vanishing skill. Why trudge through a newspaper when you can watch the news on television? Why buy a novel or a biography in print form when you can listen to it on audio disk? Why bother with instruction manuals when it’s all explained via video clips on YouTube? Is there any need for the printed word anymore?
The answer is a resounding yes. Your mind likes reading and it actually has a number of important health effects you can’t get in any other way. “Reading gives you a unique pause button for comprehension and insight,” said Maryanne Wolf, director of the Center for Reading and Language Research at Tufts University. “Typically, when you read, you have more time to think. When you watch a film or listen to a tape, you don’t press that pause button.” Reading, she said, requires a great deal of concentration, which calls your intelligence to action. You are forced to follow a specific narrative, and for this you must activate your imagination. “There’s a richness that reading gives you, an opportunity to probe more than with any other medium.”
Why Reading Books and Newspapers
Continues to Have Its Place
Just like any other muscle in the body, the brain benefits from a good workout every now and then. Reading is more neurobiologically demanding than processing images or speech. That is because a specific neural circuit is required for reading that is very challenging, according to Dr. Ken Pugh of Haskins Laboratories, a science institute for language research, associated with Yale University.
Most people who don’t read regularly say it’s too time-consuming by comparison to watching television or videos online. Obviously that’s true, reading takes time. I remember trying to prepare for upcoming exams by listening to audiotapes while driving. At first, I thought of it as a more efficient use of my time. Soon, however, I realized that I wasn’t able to digest the information as well by merely listening as opposed to reading the material myself. It was as if being read to created an extra layer, making the absorption of the subject matter more difficult.
One of the reasons for this may be that reading can provide a greater amount of stress relief than listening to someone else’s voice, according to one study conducted in England and reported by PRNewswire (3/25/2009). Because our brains are constantly bombarded with information, much of which we have little or no practical use for, we have learned to tune out when being talked to by outside sources. Reading, on the other hand, can provide a greater sense of privacy.
Reading also improves people’s mood, according to a survey commissioned by the “National Year of Reading,” a program that was conducted in England in 2008 to explore the benefits of reading in everyday life. 63 percent of participants in the study reported they were more relaxed when reading a favorite book or magazine. A nearly equal number claimed that reading influenced some aspects in their lives for the better.
The latter effect was confirmed in a recent study conducted by researchers from Dartmouth College and Ohio State University. Inspiration taken from literary characters can actually change some reader’s behavior, even if it’s based on fiction, said Dr. Geoff Kauffman, one of the authors of the study report, which was published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. “When people read a fictional story, they vicariously experience their favorite character’s emotions, thoughts and beliefs in the process.” But that effect only comes with the written word, he added. “When we watch a movie, by the very essence of it, we’re positioned as spectators. So it’s hard to imagine yourself as the character. I suspect that if you read the screenplay, it would be more powerful.”
Some people can even become addicted to the experiences they derive from reading – and, of course, from watching movies as well. This is not necessarily a bad thing, according to Cristel Russell, a consumer behavior researcher at American University. Reading a favorite book (or watching a beloved movie) over and over again can be a way by which past experiences are relived like new ones or with new perspectives. It can even be therapeutic, she said.
Whatever the benefits of reading may be, real ones or perceived ones (or both), positive stimulation of the mind is a crucial ingredient at every stage in life. It helps to reduce stress, increases concentration and the ability to focus, slows memory loss and, let’s not forget, makes life a whole lot more interesting.