There’s a big difference between reading social media updates and reading a book. It’s like taking the escalator instead of the stairs. Surface reading, skimming, and link-clicking all take away the ability to focus our complete attention. Deep reading is a cognitive activity that could affect the way you age.
People who read books may live longer. A 2016 Yale study examined 3,635 people from the Health and Retirement Study who described their reading habits at the beginning of the study. “Book reading contributed to a survival advantage that was significantly greater than that observed for reading newspapers and magazines,” wrote study authors. “Compared to non-book readers, book readers had a 23-month survival advantage at the point of 80% survival in the unadjusted model. A survival advantage persisted after adjustment for all covariates.”
“By deep reading, we mean the array of sophisticated processes that propel comprehension and that include inferential and deductive reasoning, analogical skills, critical analysis, reflection, and insight.” – Maryanne Wolf and Mirit Barzillai, The Importance of Deep Reading
Attention is a primary cognitive function that declines as we age. Selective attention is the ability to disregard irrelevant information, which is essential for driving and so many other activities. “Declines in attention can, therefore, have broad-reaching effects on one’s ability to function adequately and efficiently in everyday life,” writes Elizabeth Glisky in Brain Aging: Models, Methods and Mechanisms.
Effects of novels on brain connectivity from Emory University showed that reading a novel, more complex than reading an article or short story, resulted in changes to the brain. Right after reading a chapter, there were significant increases in the part of the brain associated with perspective and story comprehension. Longer lasting changes occurred in the bilateral somatosensory cortex. (The book used in the research was Pompeii: A Novel, by Robert Harris, which I am adding to my reading list.)
There is a myriad of reasons to read books. It’s only been about 5,500 years since humans began reading. Socrates advised against teaching the masses to read because it would introduce forgetfulness.
One of my fondest memories of elementary school was Mrs. Thomas, quite the elocutionist, reading chapter books after lunch recess. The entire class would gasp and groan when she announced that it was time to get back to work. Reading aloud was the norm until the 1800s, mostly due to education and the scarcity of reading material.
Years ago, I volunteered in a third-grade classroom with low-income students, some of whom had illiterate parents. After a lesson on Japan, one child approached the teacher to ask if Japan was “really real, or was it pretend?” Our hearts broke when we realized that this eight-year-old didn’t know there was a whole world out there.
The concept of otherness, which most of us experience in early reading, is the basis for developing empathy. It can also be experiential and perspective changing as we grow older. Eric Torgersen discovered the writer Haruki Murakami while on vacation and got hooked on something he would never have considered any other time. “What has drawn me in is a literary otherness particular to Murakami: He is the one writer of whom I can say that I have really no idea what he thinks he’s doing, or why, and I like it that way,” he wrote in Reading for Otherness.
“Deep reading provides a way of discovering how we are all connected to the world and to our own evolving stories. Reading deeply, we find our own plots and stories unfolding through the language and voice of others.” Robert P Waxler and Maureen P. Hall, Transforming Literacy: Changing Lives Through Reading and Writing
The studied benefits of book reading include stress reduction, improvement in depression, and better conversation, writing skills, and sleep. Self-help books inspire and motivate, as do memoirs. While a romance novel probably won’t exercise your brain, it can help to de-stress. A book that makes you re-read passages, highlight, take notes, and then write about it, is the best kind of mental stimulation I know. I post small reviews about most of the books I read and I’m on target to read two books a month in 2019. Follow my reading list on my Book page.