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The Joys of Reading

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Picture of open book

I have always loved books.  Yep, I was the nerdy kid wearing reading glasses by sixth grade due to eyestrain.  My folks did not have to beg me to read.  Long before school summer reading assignments were mandatory, my mom dropped me off at the library where I devoured novels all summer long.  I still love reading.  I read for work.  I read for pleasure.  I belong to a book club.   Despite being a bookworm at heart, I admit, I am distracted by technology.  Especially during the workday, I find myself pulled by email, Facebook posts, texts, phone calls, and several screens on the computer.  At night, it is easy to turn on the TV and mindlessly watch dramas and reality shows.  The frenetic pace and constant imagery and sound leaves me feeling disjointed, disappointed, and tense.  Neuroscience is now looking at this phenomenon and confirming that the cyber world not only adds stress but also limits our brainpower and social skills.  To remedy this, many suggest good old-fashioned reading.  For people who make reading a regular part of their lives, there are numerous benefits.

Reading, however, is not an easy sell these days.  65% of U.S. households have three or more TVs.  The number of minutes per week the average child watches TV is 1,480.  That is over 24 hours or one whole day a week spent in front of a TV.   Add to these numbers, tablets, smartphones, and other devices and it is not an exaggeration to say that technology is a huge part of our daily lives.

The constant influx of abbreviated, fast-paced information ultimately effects pathways in the brain.  Studies indicate that preschoolers who have a TV in the bedroom have a weaker understanding of other people’s feelings and emotions, which can lead to disruptive behaviors.  This also held true for children in households where the TV was on in the background throughout the day.  However, children are not the only ones affected by tech. A study presented in 2016 by the University of Virginia in conjunction with the University of British Columbia found that adults using smartphones are more likely to be distracted. The results suggest that even people who have not been diagnosed with ADHD may experience some of the disorder's symptoms, including distraction, difficulty focusing and getting bored easily when trying to focus, fidgeting, having trouble sitting still, difficulty doing quiet tasks and activities, and restlessness.  "The findings simply suggest that our constant digital stimulation may be contributing to an increasingly problematic deficit of attention in modern society," said Kostadin Kushlev, a psychology research scientist at the University of Virginia. 

Conversely, a 2014 Emory University study published in the journal Brain Connectivity, found that becoming engrossed in a novel improves brain function.  Reading fiction, in particular, improves a reader’s empathy level and ability to imagine.  Reading stories, whether it is Cat in the Hat or Moby Dick, requires several parts of the brain to work all at the same time.  Using all these sections of the noggin at once increases the number of pathways and connections.  All that activity leads to a better understanding of people and the world.  It also improves memory, comprehension, and concentration.  Here are a few more benefits of reading:

Relaxation.  Reading allows you to escape the day’s worries and stresses.  Tuning out the world and getting engrossed in a story and its characters occupies the mind and helps relax the body. 

Sharp brain over the lifetime.  Reading benefits young and old with increased knowledge, vocabulary, and focus.  Students, who read more, score higher on reading tests and tests of general intelligence.  People who read over their lifetime experience slower mental decline. A 2013 study published in Neurology concludes that frequent cognitive (mental) activity across the life span has an association with slower late-life cognitive decline.  Lead author, Robert S. Wilson, states, “We shouldn’t underestimate the effects of everyday activities, such as reading and writing, on our children, ourselves and our parents or grandparents.”  Bottom line, Wilson and other researchers, recommend reading, puzzles, and other brain activities from childhood through the elder years in order to keep the brain sharper for longer. 

Better Sleep.  Reading a real book with paper pages helps you relax and therefore, sleep better. Tablets, phones, computers, and TV can actually hurt your sleep because the screen light signals the brain that it is time to wake up.  Reading an actual book in bed under dim light is the best bet for unwinding.

It is FREE and there is something for everyone!  One of the great joys of living in NY is the free library system.  Talk about low-budget entertainment!  Local libraries have books, eBooks, audio books, and more on every subject imaginable.  Whether you enjoy poetry, the classics, westerns, romance, or fantasy, there is something sure to spark your imagination and curiosity.

Lorraine Wichtowski is a community health educator at UR Medicine Noyes Health in Dansville.  If you have questions or suggestions for future articles, she can be reached at or 585-335-4327.

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