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In Defense of Reading

An essential tool to make sense of the world.

Warning: In this post, we are going to talk about the importance of reading. When we bring up reading in our offices, sometimes patients will (eloquently) roll their eyes or nervously giggle and inform us: “I’m not a reader.” Some will note that they used to be readers, but “just sort of stopped.” What does ADHD have to do with reading and why do we bring that up during an evaluation/management session for ADHD?

Simply put, reading is good for your brain; and more specifically, it is good for building attention and focus.

Let’s take those two separately. Why is reading important? Well, just as your eyes tell you what the outside looks like, just as your ears tell you what the outside sounds like, and just as all the senses help us make sense of our world, so too does reading.

Reading is an essential tool, a kind of sixth sense, and one specific to modern human beings, that helps us better understand how the outside world works. Fiction helps us empathize better with diverse people; it helps build an understanding of how people other than ourselves think and respond to circumstances. Fantasy and science fiction can help us imagine worlds different from our own; the best science fiction and fantasy use that as a vantage point from which to encourage readers to re-examine their preconceptions about our world and about other people.

Of course, nonfiction is also important. As we write this, a historic vote on impeachment is being taken in the US Congress. Reading about the historical context, about how the US has fared in previous times of political division, can help us make sense of the tumultuous times we currently live in. If you can read the facts, you can digest them for yourself; you don’t have to rely on other people to interpret everything for you like pre-digested baby food.

Reading is also good for your brain more generally (listening to a book probably gives similar benefits; the point is that books have length and complexity). Getting through a book is an active cognitive process, requiring you to synthesize information from a variety of brain areas. Reading requires you to be actively engaged, and it happens at the speed of “real life.” The reward of finishing a book is exciting and gives you a sense of real accomplishment. These aspects make it beneficial for building attention and focus (which is why we do bring it up during ADHD evaluations).

PIC SNIPE/Shutterstock
Nothing's better than a book
Source: PIC SNIPE/Shutterstock

In direct contrast, recreational screens (video games, social media, etc.) are generally not good for your brain. As they are more intense inputs, designed by people and algorithms that know how to keep you coming back for more and more, they cause your brain to flood with dopamine. Your brain gets used to this and soon begins to feel that anything that is not recreational electronics and does not flood you with dopamine is kind of dull.

This leads to increasing difficulty focusing on anything other than electronics and other instantly gratifying sensory inputs (which is difficult for everybody, but especially for people with ADHD). It’s kind of like eating candy and junk food all the time: If you eat candy and junk food constantly, pretty soon real food starts to taste kind of bland, and you don’t want it anymore. That is not good for your body and you pay for it with obesity and diabetes. In the case of most recreational electronics, you pay for constant use with a decreased ability to pay attention and focus on anything more complex than shooting villains and monsters with an automatic weapon on a video screen. Recreational screens also tend to make people less persistent: On a screen, if you don’t like something you can just ignore it: Swipe, and it’s gone. But the real world doesn’t work that way.

The number of readers has been declining since at least the mid-1950s when television became available.1 According to a survey from 2018, most people (about 80%) don’t read, and of the people who do, many are older, in their 60s. Reading really seems to be a dying skill in our society.2

Of course, many people continue to read articles (and blogs like this one) online. This helps people keep up with some of the basics, but just as you wouldn’t want your doctor skimming an article about how to do your surgery and then going for it, deep and full knowledge and appreciation of complex topics helps turn any discussion into more of an exchange of ideas and less of a barrage of conflicting slogans. In our current political climate, where lip service is being paid to “bringing the country together” while we are simultaneously shouting catchphrases at each other, reading longer and more thoughtfully written books could help deepen the conversation.




More from Benjamin Cheyette, M.D., and Sarah Cheyette M.D.
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