A novel idea: reading found to improve health

BY EMILY BETZ
Opinion Editor

We have always been told reading was better for us than watching television, but until recently there was no concurrent evidence to support that theory. It was just something our parents told us to get us to turn off the television and pick up a book. The unfortunate truth however is reading is declining. In a techno-centric world, less and less people are picking up books and even fewer finishing them. The Pew Research Center surveyed people over the age of 18 back in 1978, when 92 percent of the country had read at least one book in the last year. In 2014 that number had dropped to 72 percent. In contrast, Americans are spending around 7.5 hours of their days passively browsing the internet, using their smartphones, and watching television.

A recent study published by Tohoku University found that there was, in fact, a negative impact of excessive and prolonged exposure to television. They monitored 276 children, from the ages 5-18 who watched between 0-4 hours of television a day. Finding that those children who watched more television had lower IQ’s, specifically in verbal intelligence. There was also a discovered correlation between those children who watched the most television, and an increase in grey matter in  the frontal cortex. The University stated they would have to run a larger experiment in order to prove causation, however this information by itself is still troubling.

On the opposite side, Emory University ran a study to see the impact of reading on the brain. 21 students were asked to read “Pompeii” by Robert Harris, 30 pages a night. Then in the morning they would come in for MRI’s and for 5 days after they finished reading the book. The study found a connectivity, specifically in the sensorimotor region and in the part of the brain responsible for language. But what was most shocking was the flare in the part of the brain that associates sensation in the body, called grounded cognition. In other words, reading can cause a physical sensation depending on what is happening in the book, to an extent. And these changes to the brain lasted for as long as 5 days after the novel was completed.

“The fact that we are detecting them over a few days for a randomly assigned novel suggests that your favorite novels could certainly have a bigger and longer-lasting effect on the biology of your brain,” said Gregory Berns, author of the study.

You could say that books are the cure, providing stimulation to the parts of the brain television desensitizes. According to the New York Times, digital format book (or e-books) will inevitably pass print books by the year 2018. So why then, when books are so easily accessible, and a person can press a button to download any piece of literature they desire, are people reading less? Whatever one’s particular preference in format is, an appreciation for literature needs to be emphasized. Books are changing with the times, as they should, having always been a reflection on the world around us. Long winding descriptions are being traded for shorter sentences, and a faster paced storyline, possibly due to our now shorter attention spans. With all of our health fads, let’s make the latest one a technology cleanse with an increase of reading in our diets. The health benefits would certainly be a lot more pleasurable than a juice cleanse, or the newest cabbage diet.

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