Reading and Your Brain

ebookRecently, posed an article stating that reading an actual book, i.e. a printed hard-bound copy, is actually better for your brain than reading ebooks! Reading itself is good for your brain. Reading exercises the brain and aids in preventing Alzheimer’s. Plus, like laughter, it helps to reduce stress levels with only a few minutes of reading per day. (Obviously this depends on what you are reading and why.) Both of these reasons work with either the traditional paper copy or the digital copy.

Huffington Post noted in a 2013 article that a study done on undergraduate students using an fMRI showed increased connectivity within the brain after reading a novel over the course of several nights, with effects that lasted several days even after the novel was finished. These connections were noted in the language center of the brain.

Comprehension, according to the article, is increased by reading a fixed text, paper copy, as well as feeling the weight of the paper. Our brains like order. Human beings often like to make order from chaos, hence constellations in the sky or sightings of Jesus on potato skins. We want order through which to understand the universe. A paper book with fixed text allows our brains to associate the words with their precise location on the page and the relationship with other words on that same page. This sense of order gives the brain a chance to delve deeply into the context of the words without struggling to analyze constant changes.

Reading long sentences without links is a skill you need — but can lose if you don’t practice.

According to studies, we are losing our ability to read in a linear fashion the more we read on screens. We don’t read whole sentences anymore, but prefer to scan the text for keywords. This, in conjunction with constant distractions from our environment, deplete the ability of the brain to comprehend text passages.

I agree with this conclusion. When staring at a screen for too long, I just want to get finished and move on. I’m usually in a hurry to find the tidbits of info I need for the moment and discard the rest. This may work for non-fiction information gathering (or it may result in media-like sound-bites distanced from the truth of the subject), but it doesn’t work well when reading fiction or poetry.

Literary works are written not only for subject matter but for beauty. Authors take many hours perfecting the way words play on one another and how they sound, in essence creating a musical melody in spoken words, or pursuing a certain emotional impact through specific combinations.

The act of reading itself is still being studied as we try to discover why some people learn to read more easily than others. Different people use different areas of the brain to decode written text depending upon their reading skill level; and, in some, the way they process sound affects their ability to read. While speaking has been hard-wired into our bio-systems over 10,000 years of evolution, we do not actually have genes coded within our genetic structure for reading – it isn’t a survival skill. Wiring our brains to read and comprehend is a complex and complicated skill, one that is being lost in technology.  Reading is not a natural ability, yet many of us take for granted that it is. (See Learning to Read, pg 35)  We have to keep practicing this skill in order to use it properly. Add this factor to the difference between reading on screen and reading a physical book and you might see the conundrum we face to effect a literacy rate of 100%. Get real books into the hands of readers to improve their abilities!

If reading were a natural phenomenon, everyone would be doing it.

There are two distinct reasons why I find ebooks difficult to read.

  1. The text moves. Maybe you haven’t noticed it if you read a book straight through on a single device, but depending on many factors, the words on the page aren’t always in the same place. Depending on which direction I’m flipping pages, lines jump from the end of one page to the beginning of the next. Moving between devices of different sizes, nothing matches up. I lose my place and I lose my interest.
  2. I love rereading favorite passages in books. I can go to many books on my shelves and with ease locate such passages simply by opening each book purely by measuring the distance from the cover with my fingers. With an ebook, unless I remember to bookmark the passage or highlight it the first time through, I’ve a slim chance of finding it again. Nor does the passage feel quite the same because, once again, the words have moved around.

We all know the reasons why ebooks are so popular these days. They are cheap. They are easier to carry around. These are two very good reasons, and I have to admit I have a quite a few books amassed in my digital library, more than I can read in one year – though I am making every effort to do so. I can change subjects and genres on a whim, and I can keep two books going at the same time with a simple touch of a button.

Ebooks also provide quick and widespread access to books of many kinds: classics, new best sellers, text books, memoirs – every genre imaginable and available on-line. And with the easy use of a built-in dictionary, people have the ability to expand their vocabularies with instant gratification.

A health drawback I find to my ebooks is insomnia. I mentioned in a previous post how it is noted that insomnia may be caused by light sources. The best time for me to read is at night in bed after everyone else in the house is asleep and no one is asking for me. Digital devices are bright light sources stimulating the brain to believe it is daylight. I even have the brightness turned down on my ereader to as low as I can get it and still be able to read. Reading a traditional book does require a light source, yes; but if you think about it, that light source isn’t shining directly in your eyes. It’s usually above or to the side, indirectly illuminating an innately light-mute sheaf of paper. I should experiment to see if going back to real books in bed helps curb this continuing problem.

So, I urge all readers to pull out a favorite dog-eared paperback from the old bookshelf. And if you’ve recently purged your library inventory in favor of your new e-reader, buy yourself a new hardcopy. Find a new author and read a new favorite. Feel free to use scraps of paper to bookmark your new favorite passages and savor the physical presence of someone else’s world written just for you.



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