What Reading Does to your Brain
I used to read. A lot. I love getting a new book and diving into the characters and their lives. I still own every single Babysitter’s Club book because classics never go out of style. I had books (nice old ones, not the Babysitter’s Club) as decor at my wedding. I have a quote from Oscar Wilde on my wrist. I have many quotes from Hunter S. Thompson on my walls.
Except, I barely read.
Not really. Not truly. Yeah, I’ll pack books for vacation, and happily read for hours during rainy days at the lake, but I don’t read often. Or, rather, I don’t read for a long time. My mind has gotten used to fast-paced everything and in-your-face instant gratification. Reading a page or two is enough for my brain until it turns to something else, looking for that next exciting thing.
Yet, books sit piled up on nearly every single surface in my house. They’re spilling out of their designated spot, waiting patiently in a pile for me to read them. While I’ve been reading, I’ve been doing it like scrolling through an Instagram feed or getting caught in a Google loop. I start reading what I feel like reading at that very moment. I’ve got a day book, a night book, plus educational books (read:dry) that interested me in that moment, but not for long. I add more books to the pile, throwing on those ’cause I yearned for it’ books that I had read ages ago and wanted to relive the feeling I got when I first started it.
They’re all still sitting there, waiting. Taunting me to finish them.
Getting back into reading is taking a long time, and is much harder than I ever thought it would be. I’d become giddy as a kid when the ‘I Love to Read’ song came on during I Love to Read Month. I was happy to drop anything I was learning at that moment and sit down and read whatever book I had brought along for this exact purpose, only to feel disappointed when that song came back on and it was time to stop reading. I brought books with me everywhere just in case I had to wait. I’ve mainly stopped that good-habit because of the same reason I stopped wearing a watch everyday: smartphones.
Maybe that’s why I had such a good memory growing up and why I feel like I’m losing it today. Reading helps strengthen our memory. Think of reading as an exercise for the brain, much like puzzles and brain teasers. You’re always working your brain by having to focus on the words in front of you, of having to use your mind to conjure up the scene that’s being played out on the pages. We always knew that reading was better for our brains than TV, but why? Is it because you’re using more brain power, giving your brain a little exercise? If that’s the case, then if reading has us focusing, thinking and using our brain, does that mean watching sports can be similarly good for the brain? Apparently, yes. But, the rest of TV? Probably not so much.
I’ve been starting to read a lot more lately, cutting out TV as much as possible (although, not completely. I mean, we’re living in the Age of Television, people) and trying to get back into one of my favourite hobbies. Annoying, at first, I slowly started to get into the rhythm. My brain didn’t seem to want to stay on the page, instead, jumping to the next thought or next activity after a paragraph or two. Eventually, with a glance at social media every so often, I’ve trained my brain to sit still and read pages, sometimes a whole chapter, in one sitting without getting up to do something else. That sounds pathetic to those who read all the time, or who used to (my 12-year old self is laughing at my present day self), but it is a huge feat for me.
And, guys, I feel amazing.
My brain feels more clear, I feel able to tackle tasks a lot easier, I feel happier and more content. This is what I felt when our internet went down for two weeks (read the nitty gritty on it here). But, like all bad habits, I went back to scrolling for hours or bingeing so many shows I got too exhausted to even watch TV. I’m hoping I won’t revert back to my old ways and that by the time I do, spring will be arriving and I’ll be spending more time outside than right now, letting me roam and be in nature when I feel my mind start to wander.
Being glued to our devices isn’t making ourselves feel better and while you can get some great reading done, like on Medium or an online newspaper without ink-covered hands, or hide what book you’re reading in an e-reader, a good old-fashioned book is better.
Just like a lot of people remember something better when they write it down, apparently just the simple act of turning a page helps you understand what you just read. It’s also better to read a real book before bed than stressing out your brain and eyes with an e-reader or your phone, something I know all too well with migraines and stress. A physical book in my hands always relaxes me and signals to my brain that it’s time for bed. Cue the melatonin.
Unless you’re reading a Stephen King novel, something you may want to save for your ‘day reading’ collection, reading can help reduce stress. Picture it: curling up on a big chair under a soft blanket with a tea or coffee beside you and a good book in your lap. Be honest, you suddenly felt your shoulders relax at that tranquil image, didn’t you?
So, if reading is so good for us, so damn relaxing and wonderful, why aren’t we doing more of it? Probably because a good chunk of us are stressed out messes that are tired of using our brains all day and just want to veg out in front of the TV. Totally acceptable. But, maybe we throw in a book before bed, or a nice Saturday and Sunday morning reading a book before the whole house wakes up. Maybe we start a Book Challenge and challenge our brains and ourselves to read a certain number of books this year, even if it’s only 10.
Start a book club, do the challenge, read a damn children’s book, an old favourite, the whole news article before commenting, a trashy romance novel, just read more. Your brain will thank you.