Is Book Reading Your Antidote to Pesky Screen Distractions?

The benefits of reading can heal the unwelcome effects of screen addiction.

Posted Nov 14, 2019

G Reva, Creative Commons
Source: G Reva, Creative Commons

Does the glut of screens in your life sometimes feel like an alien invasion? Is it possibly even worse than that? Screens have infiltrated themselves everywhere, from office and home life to bassinets and toddlers' training potties. Modern life is technologically amazing, but in evolutionary terms, we still possess the same brain as our stone-age ancestors, and it is simply not equipped by virtue of energy constraints to process today’s deluge of news feeds, notifications, texts, and all the rest that tugs for your attention. More to the point, digital devices and social media don’t bring us closer together as promised, but increasingly leave us isolated, depressed, lonely, and anxious instead.

One reason we feel this is that we have conditioned ourselves like Pavlov’s dogs to soothe negative emotions by turning to screens. Instead of handling bad feelings intelligently, we distract ourselves with games, social media, and a torrent of Internet videos defaulted to “auto–play.” Doing so we trap ourselves in a Catch–22: we use screens to escape negative feelings, which only feeds back to amplify the discomfort.     

The simple of act of linear reading can improve mindfulness, empathy, and attention span, all elements that are currently cudgeled by digital distractions and heavy screen exposure. By “linear” I mean following a sequential narrative like those found in novels or a work of nonfiction.

Regular reading invites nuanced and intimate insights into human nature. Reading can temper your scattered attention and bring it into focus. Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre or Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon, for example, offers multifaceted characters that make you pay attention and plumb your empathy to unpack them if you are to experience the emotional satisfaction that literature provides. Reading in-depth about Jane Eyre’s struggles with self–worth or Milkman Dead’s masculinity in Solomon, you gradually come to cultivate deeper awareness about your own feelings and the world around you.

Linear reading is not only enjoyable, but it also builds up your emotional intelligence. Individuals who habitually read either fiction or nonfiction have greater empathy than people who are not regular readers. Narratives require you to impute motives and intentions, anticipate a character’s actions, and predict upcoming turns in the plot [1]. As Pulitzer–winning novelist William Styron put it, “A great book should leave you with many experiences and slightly exhausted at the end. You live several lives while reading” [2]. Multitasking is mentally draining because it burns a lot of glucose, the brain’s primary source of fuel. Glucose is the brain's sole source of food except in times of fasting or starvation. Then it burns ketones, a water-soluble fatty acid produced in the liver by cannibalizing fat and muscle tissue that helped our ancestors survive times of food scarcity [3]. Living neurons become metabolically fatigued just as muscle cells do when you feel drained at the gym. By contrast, Styron’s pleasurable “exhaustion” caused by reading is the satisfying glow from fresh ideas that challenge your imagination.

Heavy screen use does not afford us that satisfaction. It only functions as a crude morphine drip that makes us constantly crave an ephemeral pleasure that we can never seem to find. Writer David Foster Wallace alluded to this when he described his own addiction to television. “Instead of watching,” he said, “I’m scanning anxiously back and forth for this thing that I think I want that I don’t even know what it is” [4]. What makes literature a wondrously sensuous and satisfying engagement is that it delivers us those “things,” as Wallace refers to them, in forms we never expected. Sometimes we dive into a book with only basic expectations, yet finish it with unexpected new ideas, insights, revelations, and perspectives that we use to enrich our own lives.

An author paints the details in the words while readers visualize them in their brains. We absorb information in a meaty way rather than in the bite-sized, incomplete manner typical of Internet surfing. While reading is not a panacea for screen addiction, it does beef up the mind and soul just like how regular gym sessions boost our stamina and physical health.

Without a speck of irony, former Google Chairman Eric Schmidt admitted that “I still believe that sitting down and reading a book is the best way to really learn something. And I worry that we are losing that.” Mark Zuckerberg’s New Year’s resolution a few years ago was, “to read books” [5]. The Facebook Chairman invited millions of his followers to read a new book with him every two weeks, boasting that “books allow you to fully explore a topic and immerse yourself in a deeper way than most media today. I’m looking forward to shifting more of my media diet towards reading books.” The moral contradiction of his promotion obviously eluded him. At any rate, the book club went defunct.

Email Dr. Cytowic at neuroman@gwu.edu to comment or ask to join his low-frequency newsletter and receive a copy of “Digital Distractions: Your Brain on Screens."

References

1. Berns, G.S., et al., Short-and Long-Term Effects of a Novel on Connectivity in the Brain. Brain connectivity, 2013. 3(6): p. 590-600

2. Styron, W., The Art of Fiction. Paris Review, Spring 1954 (No. 5), ed. Peter Matthiessen and George Plimpton. doi: theparisreview.org/interviews/5114/the-art-of-fiction-no-5-william-styron.

3. Glucose is the brain's sole source of food except in times of fasting or starvation. Then it burns ketones,  a water–souble fatty acid produced in the liver by cannibalizing fat and muscle tissue that helped our ancestors survive times of food scarcity. 

4. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FkxUY0kxH804. 

5. Widdicombe, L., The Zuckerberg Bump. The New Yorker, January 19, 2015. p. 18. doi: newyorker.com/magazine/2015/01/19/zuckerberg-bump.