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Why Physical Books are a Cognitive "Cheat-Code" to a Better Brain

There’s a misconception running amok in the world of knowledge acquisition. You may think that digital screens and physical print are no different. The text is the same, the eyes and brain reading the material is the same, so why would there be any difference between reading my favorite erotica on my iPhone instead of a physical book? Well, besides the “cleanup” differences of the two, modern psychology and neuroscience research has displayed that physical books provide massive benefits that cannot be understated.

Maryanne Wolf, the Director of the Center for Dyslexia, Diverse Learners, and Social Justice at UCLA and the author of Proust and the Squid, Tales of Literacy in the 21st Century, and the recent Reader Come Home, published an article named “Cultivating Deep Reading in a Digital Life” just a few weeks ago. She details how and why physical print books offer massive cognitive developmental benefits while digital screens may lead to the degradation and de-evolution of the human brain.

First, let’s look at some data. A longitudinal study conducted by researchers from Harvard, McGill, and Singapore took 500 children (from birth to age 9), assigned them into groups among varying family Socioeconomic Statuses, and found a correlation between increased screen time and impaired cognitive development in areas of brain responsible for executive functioning, impulse, attention, and memory. Additionally, overall academic achievement was decreased for children with lots of screen time. Maryanne’s explanation is that children on screens are bombarded by fast-paced, colorful movements, blinking lights, scene changes, music, sound effects, and other features of digital content. They can easily become overstimulated and end up allocating cognitive resources from executive function and development towards areas of the brain responsible for perception of sensory information (such as the occipital and temporal lobes). In this instance, the child’s brain is working against itself simply because there is too much information coming in, thus leading to the impairment in cognitive development.

And small children aren’t alone in this loss of development. Due to the new “information-overload” environment of endless Tweets, Instagram Posts, articles, etc, our reading is less about deep, analytical comprehension and digestion of information, and more akin to “skimming”. When we skim, we often just read the beginning and end of a sentence, trying to grasp the main idea rather than the individual details. Thus, adults and adolescents who skim information on screens also lose the ability to make inferences, draw upon other domains of knowledge, view ideas and objects from other perspectives, and engage in critical analysis and thinking skills. Not only are children impacted by excessive screen-reading, but you and I as well.

Physical books provide massive benefits in comparison to digital screens. They demand slow, deep reading, allowing us to comprehend and encode information better and provide less of a distraction than digital screens. Furthermore, one of the advantages of this deep, meticulous, and methodical reading is the ability to make connections and inferences with information from other domains. I’m going to dive into this topic soon, but the ability to connect multiple domains of knowledge and make analogies is one of the human skills that began the Scientific Revolution in the 17th Century. Print books also improve our empathetic abilities by seeing ideas and perspectives from the character’s POV. Neuroscientific imaging research from Raymond Mar displays that when reading about character’s actions or emotions, parts of the brain in the reader responsible for those feelings and actions light up. So for example, when you’re reading your Erotica Fantasy novel(yes, I’m bringing it up again), parts of your brain responsible for sexual desire (hypothalamus, temporal lobes, and others) light up.

I’d also like to bring up that empathy, one of the byproducts of reading print, is a main factor in the creation of lasting friendships and intimate relationships. Thus, reading may make you a better friend and lover too, so maybe you should pick up that book :).

Okay, okay, so reading physical books makes us more cognitively able, but why should we be cognitively able in the first place? This may seem a little, uh, duh, to be scientific, but our modern society demands cognitive ability to be a financially free individual (which many of you probably aim to be). High cognitive ability is essential for success in nearly every job and is often a factor in social and personal relationships. Education and critical thinking skills are highly valued, and the ability to problem-solve, think creatively, and pay attention can greatly determine one's life. Therefore, developing and maintaining strong cognitive abilities is crucial for success and fulfillment in the modern world.

If you want to get into reading more, reduce the friction of reading by choosing books that interest you. Right now I’m reading Range by David Epstein and Fire and Blood by George R.R. Martin. If you ever need book recs, whether it’s Sci-Fi, Self-Help, Fantasy, Philosophy, or ANYTHING, just reach out to me <3.

Secondly, read in a cool environment such as a Cafe, Museum, Library, the Park, or anywhere that makes reading more fun.

Finally, build up your reading stamina slowly. Start off with just 15 minutes 4x a week. The next week, bump it up to 20 minutes 4x a week. And the week after that, add in an extra day or two. Build up your stamina slowly so that reading can become a long-term, sustainable part of your day, not just a one-off event.

In conclusion, our modern society requires high cognitive ability, and physical books are a means to acquire such ability. Reading physical books can improve our comprehension, ability to make connections and inferences, empathetic abilities, and critical and analytical thinking skills. Do yourself a favor and grab a cup of coffee, a book you’ve been eyeing for a while (not Fifty Shades of Grey, damnit), and develop your brain.

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