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Books as Brain Food

June 7, 2019

While some may think reading online is enough, it turns out that compared to reading books, it’s like subsisting on a diet of junk food…and your brain won’t thank you for it.

“You need to read more.”

“I read texts.”

It seems to be a stock-standard response from many teens, when asked to read more books. But in a world where we’re reading constantly, digitally, why do we still bother with books? Well, we need it for brain balance.

Readers who came of age pre-digital will probably remember sitting at the breakfast table and reading the cereal box while they ate. Or the toothpaste tube while they cleaned their teeth, or train maps on our daily commute. We have always read small snippets of text to pass time, it’s just now, that text is delivered digitally.

But reading online isn’t just about texts and memes and posts from our friends and people we follow. We have access to the world’s greatest galleries and museums, the most prestigious universities, and all the world’s press. We can access archives online, open learning portals, and are able to study or research any subject we choose. Sites such as Google Books, Project Gutenberg, the Library of Congress, and Open Library mean that the history of literature is literally at our fingertips.

With all this to choose from, why do we actually need print books?

Numerous studies have been done on reading in print and digitally, with results usually based on the standardised testing of students, and print yielding better results. The key seems to be critical thinking – to be proficient at that, you need to be able to handle and make sense of large amounts of text.

Reading online has taught us to skim, speed read and switch off early. One study collected the data of 650,000 visits and discovered that only 20 per cent of visitors finished reading an article. Academic Neil Thurman analysed data of both digital and print newspaper readers in the UK. Online readers vastly outnumber print readers, but he discovered that the print readers actually spent more time reading. Print newspapers are read for an average of 40 minutes while those same readers spent only 30 seconds skimming articles online.

None of this is a negative. We have access to more information online, and can use that to learn and entertain. However, there needs to be balance and this is where books continue to play a vital role in our lives. Whereas before, books were the only portal into knowledge, now they are an important link to another way of learning.

Neuroscience reveals that when reading online, our habit of skimming shifts our brains into non-linear reading. If this is the only reading we do, we lose the ability to access the deep reading part of our brain. Important aspects of the brain such as critical thinking and creativity are at risk if we don’t maintain a bi-literate brain in a digital world. So, print books, or books read via a basic e-reader (no flipping between activities) are absolutely essential for brain balance.

But you knew that, right? While we haven’t done official research here, we do know from website data that the engagement with our Better Reading articles is much longer than on most other pages. Chances are you’ve made it to the end of this article because of your bi-literate brain and the power of reading books.

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