Most people love television, but what you get in front of the screen pales in comparison to the benefits of reading.
So, Netflix watchers are about to be sorely disappointment, because binge-watching your favorite series isn’t that healthy for the brain. Documented research encourages all of us to do more reading, as it encourages brain neuroplasticity, and enhances cognitive skills. It even strengthens cardiac function which encourages blood flow to the brain.
Let’s look at some reason why books are better for your brain than tv.
1. BRAIN NEUROPLASTICITY
The human brain has over 80 billion brain cells called neurons.
These neurons have dendrites, which are branches that leading to synapses that connect them to other neurons. With these specialized brain cells, the brain is able to communicate signals to the body. The area of the brain dedicated to reading is the cortex.
As we learn new skills like reading, the connection between neurons become stronger. This is especially true for children. Brain imaging research shows exposure to reading and phonics encourage brain plasticity – growth and reorganization of vital neural networks in the brain.
2. SENSORY PROCESSING
Sensory skills are skills involving the receiving of information. For example, vision, hearing, touch, smell, taste, and proprioception are sensory processing skills. Watching television and reading are sensory experiences – but are very different.
Reading does not overload visual processing like the flashing colors of a television screen. Along with strengthening brain connection, reading is important for the somatosensory cortex, which is responsible for responding to sensory information such as movement and pain. Readers think about the events depicted in books. This means, reading a book about riding a bike activates the same brain area as physically riding a bike.
Books offer a variety of experiences causing the reader to deeply contemplate and connect a story.
3. VERBAL COMMUNICATION
There are many forms of communication: verbal, written, listening, visual, and non-verbal (i.e. gestures, signing, eye contact, etc.). Research connects lower verbal test scores with increased hours spent watching television. People who watch television have thicker frontal lobes, which is associated with lower verbal reasoning.
This is because television provides all aspects of communication that are not included in books. Through words, readers are exposed to verbal dialogue, writing, interpreting character gestures, and more. Television does not portray as many details. Reading goes further into depth about what characters think, feel, and how they react. Readers must concentrate to think about the themes of the book and make inferences about the material.
4. VOCABULARY AND LANGUAGE
Although television is mostly dialogue, reading develops vocabulary.
The words written in books are, on average, twice as complex than words spoken through television characters. Reading forces a person to look at unknown words and interpret their meaning through context clues. The increased vocabulary is not only helpful for writing, but for expression in everyday conversation.
Books provide repeated exposure to known words, which tests knowledge and understanding.
Even listening to a book via audio or read aloud has better results on vocabulary than watching television. However, experts have found that the effect television has on vocabulary is neutral. As long as people spend more time reading than watching tv, they won’t sacrifice their vocabulary.
5. ATTENTION SPAN
Whether a series or a lengthy movie, television condenses a story. The scenes are rapidly changing with shifts in camera angles. On top of that, we have commercial breaks. On top of that, people are often preoccupied with other tasks. It can be anything from doing homework or browsing the computer, to sending text messages or doing a hobby. The act of watching television does not involve equal levels of thinking in comparison to reading.
This is because reading requires constant attention. Readers can process the material at their own pace instead of attempting to keep up with rapidly changing television scenes.
6. EMOTIONAL INTELLIGENCE
The term emotional intelligence describes the awareness and the ability to control emotions.
Expert psychologist’s at York University and Emory University found that literary fiction is related to a greater capacity for empathy. This is because readers imagine what it would be like if they were in the character’s shoes.
During the process of cracking open a book, we uncover the emotions of various characters and predicting their actions in response to those emotions. This translates to interactions in daily life. Readers can understand the actions and intentions of others because they are trained to do so from character perspectives.
Also, readers observe interactions between characters and compare them to their lives. This is a key aspect of functional relationships. Basically, another of the many benefits of reading is being better with people.
Can you recall a movie or television series that is better than the book in which it is based? Probably not. This is due to imagery – which books are far superior.
Television provides complete visual and auditory images. There is little left to viewers to imagine. Reading, however, is up to the discretion of the individual. No two interpretations are identical. One reader’s vision may be entirely different than what another experiences.
Memory, comprised of short-term, long-term, and working memory, is a cognitive process the brain relies on to store and retrieve information. The mind is a muscle and functions optimally with practice. And, reading is an exercise for memory.
It presents information that readers can go back and review as many times as necessary to form their conclusions, recall words and their meanings, or process letters. It leads to enhanced memory for situations outside of written language like the working memory involved in memorizing a phone number to call a friend.
Cognitive skills such as memory decline with age. Reading can prevent cognitive decline as our years pass by – as well as problems associated with the onset of dementia. Studies report that avid readers have lower levels of beta-amyloid – a protein deficient in Alzheimer’s patients. We might have the stereotype of old ladies reading romance books, but they were reaping the benefits of reading in spades!
Evidence that excessive TV watching impacts behavior is obvious through studies with child subjects.
Children and adolescents are impressionable. They learn by modeling what they see in their environment – including the television and media they are exposed. like Now think about how much risky behavior can be in a single show (i.e. violence, sexual situations, etc.). Studies prove this monkey-see-monkey-do violent behavior persists into adulthood.
Also, reading also has an effect on behavior. Readers adopt characters’ experiences. For example, a study including 82 undergraduate college students reading stories about the 2008 presidential election had startling results! The students who read first-person stories were over twice as likely to vote simply because reading influenced their behavior.
10. STRESS REDUCTION
The hustle and bustle of life is stressful. Juggling work, school, health, and relationships can be overwhelming.
When your brain is running one-hundred miles a minute, reading lessens stress by 68 percent. The act is a distraction from stressful events, allowing us to live in the world of characters. It is truly an escape from reality. The brain reroutes energy to concentrating on the story instead of fueling the harsh effects of stress on the body. This is one of the easiest benefits of reading to see in a short amount of time.
11. IMPROVED CARDIAC FUNCTION
Just 6 minutes of reading has amazing benefits for physical functioning. As the body relaxes, the muscles are not as tense. In addition to relaxation, reading lowers heart rate and blood pressure. Cardiac function is connected to the brain.
We also see poor heart health with higher cholesterol levels. This causes injury to the brain’s white matter. However, reading improves blood flow and circulation to the brain.
DOES GENRE CHANGE THE BENEFITS?
Similar to how watching an educational television series has an opposite effect on the brain as a drama, different genres of books do change the effect reading has on the brain.
A wide variety of genres is optimal, as it broadens the experiences readers submerse themselves into and that strengthens the brain’s neurons. For example, biographies tend to evoke effects on emotions, whereas classic literary fiction focuses on vocabulary and thrillers are an exciting distraction to shift perspective and to reduce stress.
To receive all of the benefits of reading, pick books you enjoy!
Ennemoser, M. & Schneider, W. (2007). Relations of television viewing and reading: Findings from a 4-year longitudinal study. Journal of Educational Psychology, 99(2):349-368. DOI: 10.1037/0022-06184.108.40.2069
Goldman, C. (2012). This is your brain on Jane Austen, and Stanford researchers are taking notes. Retrieved from https://news.stanford.edu/news/2012/september/austen-reading-fmri-090712.html