Would you prefer to watch TV or read a book? The vast majority would likely choose the first option as their preferred entertainment. However, my fellow Netflix watchers are about to be sorely disappointment. Binge watching your favorite series may not be as healthy for the brain. Documented research favors reading to watching television, as it encourages brain neuroplasticity, enhances cognitive skills, and even strengthens cardiac function which encourages blood flow to the brain.
Reading VS. Television: Brain Neuroplasticity
The human brain has over 80 billion brain cells called neurons. 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.
Reading VS. Television: Sensory Processing
Sensory skills are skills involving the receiving of information. For example, vision, hearing, touch, smell, taste, and proprioception are sensory processing skills. Both watching television and reading are sensory experiences but differ greatly. 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. Thus, reading a book about riding a bike activates the same brain area as physically riding a bike. Books offer a multitude of experiences causing the reader to deeply contemplate and connect a story.
Reading VS. Television: Verbal Communication
There are many forms of communication: verbal, written, listening, visual, and non-verbal (i.e. gestures, signing, eye contact, etc.). Research correlates lower verbal test scores with increased hours spent watching television. The frontal lobes of individuals who watch television are thicker, which is associated with lower verbal reasoning.
This is because reading 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.
Reading VS. Television: Vocabulary and Language
Although television is made of 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 the time spent reading is not sacrificed for television watching, it does not reduce vocabulary.
Reading VS. Television: Attention Span
Whether a series or a lengthy movie, television condenses a story. The scenes are rapidly changing with shifts in camera angles. The plot is broken up for advertisement breaks. Most people are preoccupied with other tasks simultaneously such as doing homework, browsing the computer, sending text messages, or are engaged in a craft. The act of watching television does not involve equal levels of thinking in comparison to reading.
Reading requires constant attention. When reading, readers are often engrossed in the story and are not completing other tasks at the same time. They can process the material at their own pace instead of attempting to keep up with rapidly changing television scenes.
Reading VS. Television: 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, as readers imagine what it would be like if they were in the character’s shoes.
During the process of reading, we are uncovering the emotions of various characters and predicting their actions in response to those emotions. This translates to interactions in daily life. Readers are more apt to understand the actions and intentions of others because they are trained to do so from character perspectives. Readers observe interactions between characters and compare them to their lives. It is a key aspect of functional relationships.
Reading VS. Television: Imagery
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. Reading is far superior to television as it pertains to imagery. 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 interpretation is identical. One reader’s vision may be entirely different than what another perceives.
Reading VS. Television: Memory
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. 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, and processing 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 is known to prevent cognitive decline with age, as well as that associated with the development of dementia. Studies report that avid readers have lower levels of beta-amyloid—a protein deficient in Alzheimer’s patients.
Reading VS. Television: Behavior
Evidence that excessive TV watching impacts behavior is obvious through studies with child subjects. Children and adolescents are impressionable. They learn by modeling those in their environment. This includes the television and media they are exposed to like the presence of risky behaviors (i.e. violence, sexual situations, etc.) depicted in their favorite television series. Studies prove the violent behavior persists into adulthood.
Similarly, 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.
Reading VS. Television: 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.
Reading VS. Television: Improves 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. Poor heart health is frequently seen with higher cholesterol levels, which causes injury to the brain’s white matter. However, reading improves blood flow and circulation to the brain.
Does Genre Alter 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: 10.1037/0022-06126.96.36.1999
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
Cheyanne is currently studying psychology at North Greenville University. As an avid patient advocate living with Ehlers Danlos Syndrome, she is interested in the biological processes that connect physical illness and mental health. In her spare time, she enjoys immersing herself in a good book, creating for her Etsy shop, or writing for her own blog.