Mad About Science: The science and importance of reading (part 1)

By Brenden Bobby
Reader Columnist

Stop for a moment and contemplate how incredible it is that you are reading. As far as we are aware, primates — and humans in particular — are the only animals that are capable of reading written languages. Dogs, mice and birds may be able to recognize familiar patterns formed by letters, giving them an illusion of literacy, but there has been no documented evidence that they can actually comprehend tangible words or draw emotion from them in the way that humans do.

Courtesy photo.

Words are our most powerful tools for conveying our greatest strength: knowledge. The written word grants a person’s consciousness and intent immortality, well after their body has succumbed to the passage of time.

Think about how incredible a word is. Every letter of a word is part of a code, meaningless until an eye captures the light it reflects. Our brains then rapidly work to decode that message, converting it into data, feeling, memory and emotion. After unwrapping that code, our brains will sometimes pack all of those feelings and emotions into more letters, forcing our brains to re-code all of that information and then orchestrate our fingers in etching them out with the intent of others (or perhaps our future selves), reading that little immortalized fragment of us. Words are a snapshot into a person’s mind at a very precise moment in time.

This all happens in a fraction of a second, faster than it takes for your brain to register a blink of your eyes.

Naturally, reading comes with all sorts of benefits. We would have abandoned it as a species long ago if it didn’t provide us an immediate and tangible benefit. As mentioned above, reading is a complicated function, and it takes your brain a good deal of attention and coordination to read. This level of focus makes your brain prioritize the problem-solving of decoding the text, and places other thoughts, anxieties and problems lower on the priority list to create a natural stress reduction effect.

Reducing stress isn’t the only benefit your mind gains from reading. Studies have shown that people who read large amounts of fiction show empathy more easily than those who do not. If you’re reading a book about an ace detective sneaking through a dark, abandoned mannequin factory hot on the heels of a murderous psychopath with an obsession for collecting human skin, your brain is going to imagine all of those details vividly. It’s only natural that you’re going to feel for this character’s emotions as if they were your own — you’re embarking on this journey together, yet all you can do is watch through their eyes.

Movies and TV may try to capture this feeling, but it’s one that can’t be emulated outside of the written word.

Reading causes your brain to work harder than it does while performing daily activities. This effect is similar to hitting the gym to work on your sweet six-pack. Putting in effort and exercising your brain will increase its capacity to retain memory, think critically, analyze problems more effectively and even ward off dementia. While the physical processes might be different — your muscles tear, rebuild with new cells and bulk up while your brain optimizes neural pathways — the result is the same. Exercising your brain will improve its performance.

It has been proven that when it comes to exercising your brain, quality matters more than quantity. For example, virtually anything that appears on social media is designed to do one thing: quickly grab your attention. Using social media as a replacement for reading would be like watching a loop of commercials for three hours instead of paying $10 to go watch a movie at the theater. Take a moment and think about how much time you spend idly scrolling through your feed every day. Add up all of that time after one week and see how much time you spent on your phone. Did anything you scrolled past stick with you for more than three days?

The average person spends about two and a half hours a day on social media recreationally. This total consists of a broken-up collection of brief scrollings, breaks from work or bathroom visits, but it adds up to about 10% of a 24-hour day. If you think that’s not enough time to meaningfully read a book, here’s more napkin math for fun.

The average American takes about five to six minutes to read one page of a book. If you were to replace social media with reading, you could comfortably read about 25 pages per day at this pace. Most novels are between 250 and 400 pages, unless you plan on slamming through War And Peace at a whopping 1,225 pages. That means it would take the average reader between 10 and 16 days to finish a novel at a very relaxed pace.

It might be hard to conceive of giving up social media, but if you find yourself stuck in an emotional and psychological rut, trapped in an endless loop of boredom scrolling, consider attempting this experiment: swap your social media usage with a book for 10 days and compare how you feel at the start of the experiment and the end.

The very worst that could happen is that you might have something new to talk about at your next party. Come back next week for a deep dive behind the science of why your brain loves to read.

Stay curious, 7B.

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