How Reading Can Be Like Falling in Love

Deep, immersive reading offers far more benefits than just pleasure

By Annie Murphy Paul
Originally Posted On July 26, 2013

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Annie Murphy Paul writes about how we think and learn — and how we can do it better. She writes the Brilliant Blog, at www.anniemurphypaul.com, and is the author of the forthcoming book Brilliant: The Science of How We Get Smarter.

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This article originally appeared on Murphy Paul's The Brilliant Blog.

When a minaret dating from the 12th century was toppled in the fighting between rebels and government forces in Aleppo, Syria, earlier this spring, we recognized that more than a building had been lost. The destruction of irreplaceable artifacts — like the massive Buddha statues dynamited in the Bamiyan Valley in Afghanistan in 2001 and the ancient texts burned and looted in Iraq in 2003 — leaves us less equipped to understand ourselves and where we came from, less able to enlarge ourselves with the awe and pleasure that these creations once evoked.

Reading for Brain Health

Recent research in cognitive science, psychology and neuroscience has demonstrated that deep reading — slow, immersive, rich in sensory detail and emotional and moral complexity — is a distinctive experience, different in kind from the mere decoding of words. Although deep reading does not, strictly speaking, require a conventional book, the built-in limits of the printed page are uniquely conducive to the deep reading experience. A book’s lack of hyperlinks, for example, frees the reader from making decisions — Should I click on this link or not? — allowing her to remain fully immersed in the narrative.

That immersion is supported by the way the brain handles language rich in detail, allusion and metaphor — by creating a mental representation that draws on the same brain regions that would be active if the scene were unfolding in real life. The emotional situations and moral dilemmas that are the stuff of literature are also vigorous exercise for the brain, propelling us inside the heads of fictional characters and even, studies suggest, increasing our actual capacity for empathy.

None of this is likely to happen when we’re scrolling through TMZ.com. Although we call the activity by the same name, the deep reading of books and the information-driven reading we do on the Web are very different, both in the experience they produce and in the capacities they develop. A growing body of evidence suggests that online reading may be less engaging and less satisfying, even for the “digital natives” for whom it is so familiar.

Last month, for example, Britain’s National Literacy Trust released the results of a study of 34,910 young people age 8 to 16. Researchers reported that 39 percent of children and teenagers read daily using electronic devices, but only 28 percent read printed materials every day. Those who read only onscreen were three times less likely to say they enjoy reading very much and a third less likely to have a favorite book. The study also found that young people who read daily only onscreen were nearly two times less likely to be above-average readers than those who read daily in print or both in print and onscreen.

Observing young people’s attachment to digital devices, some progressive educators and permissive parents talk about needing to "meet kids where they are,” molding instruction around their onscreen habits. This is mistaken. We need, rather, to show them someplace they've never been, a place only deep reading can take them.

There’s another reason to work to save deep reading: the preservation of a cultural treasure. Like information on floppy disks and cassette tapes that may soon be lost because the equipment to play it no longer exists, properly educated people are the only "equipment" that can unlock the wealth of insight and wisdom that lies in our culture's novels and poems.
 
When the library of Alexandria was lost to fire, the scarce resource was books themselves. Today, with billions of books in print and stored online, the endangered breed is not books but readers. Unless we train the younger generation to engage in deep reading and reinvigorate or sustain our own former reading habits, we will find ourselves with our culture's riches locked away in a vault: books everywhere and few able to discover or make sense of their treasury.