Your Brain on Books
By Mather Hospital
We all know that reading is good for us. It can improve brain and memory function and keep your brain operating more effectively as you age. Reading also enhances connectivity in the brain, reduces stress, promotes relaxation, improves sleep, and has the potential to decrease the likelihood of developing Alzheimer's. However not all of these benefits are created equal across reading platforms. The battle between paper books and e-readers has largely been divided into two camps: those who favor the sentimentality of a paper book versus those who want the practicality and convenience of an e-reader. But now science has stepped in, and in order to reap the greatest health benefits reading has to offer, research sides with paper books.
Brain Function & Memory:
Regular reading improves your brain power and memory function by giving your brain a workout. It may help to slow the process of natural memory and brain function decline that comes with age. According to neuroscientists at Emory University in Atlanta, "reading a gripping novel makes changes in the way the brain connects with different circuits." Although the changes reading creates in the brain may not be permanent, they can last for at least five days, suggesting that the benefits from reading "last longer than the act itself." However a study conducted at Norway's Stavanger University found that recall of a book's plot after using an e-reader was poorer than with traditional books. Specifically, participants who read a short mystery on a Kindle were significantly worse at remembering the order of events than those who read the same story in paperback. The study suggests that because our sense of touch is not engaged as strongly with an e-reader as it is with a print book, that it does not support mental reconstruction of the story in the same way.
According to the same study at Stavanger University, the brain reads by constructing a mental representation of the text based on the placement of the page in the book and the word on the page. To exercise the brain most effectively from reading and promote memory strength, the tactile experience of a book is very important, for example, thickness of the pages in your hands as you progress through a story. E-readers don't provide the same visual sense of progress when you're reading. Although they try to re-create the sensation of flipping a page, the screen is limited to one virtual page at a time, affecting the reader's sense of control. The inability to control the text physically by flipping back to previous pages, making written notes in the margins or bending the pages all limit the sensory experience of reading and thereby reduce long-term memory of the text.
Sleep & Relaxation:
Reading an old fashioned novel not only improves brain function and memory, but can also improve your sleep. As we increasingly spend more and more of our days in front of screens it's important to disconnect and relax, especially before bedtime. Reading a paper book can signal to your body that it's time to sleep. The screen of an e-reader does not have that same calming effect and can actually keep you awake longer, disrupting your sleep pattern.
"In fact, the blue light emitted by screens on cell phones, computers, televisions and tablets restrain production of melatonin, the hormone responsible for controlling your sleeping and waking cycle, or circadian rhythm. Reducing melatonin makes it harder to fall asleep and stay asleep," said Dr. Nick Patel of Pulmonary Care Associates. "In order to reduce the risk of technology inhibiting your sleep cycle, give yourself at least 30 minutes away from your gadgets before you go to bed," Patel suggests.
In addition, some researchers are now advocating for what they call "slow-reading" which is 30-45 minutes of daily reading away from the ever-present distractions of technology. Daily "slow-reading" can engage the brain, reduce stress and improve concentration.