Times have been tough lately. Living in a world under lockdown is making us say and do some weird things. It’s got us all hooked on a show about a mullet-wearing tiger magician and his diabolical, flower-crown-obsessed nemesis; It’s got my mother doing Tai Chi; And for some reason, it’s got us trying to put bananas on the endangered list. We’ve been baking bricks of banana bread as if we’re preparing to build a candy cottage to use as an apocalypse bunker. The aroma of freshly-baked loaves hangs in the air, wafting casually through silent neighbourhoods.
But what if I told you that there was something else you could be doing with that time? Something more beneficial to your mental health, and often just as juicy (albeit in a metaphorical way) and that won’t leave you struggling to put your outside clothes on when the times comes to finally, FINALLY, leave the house again. It’s not even something that most of us are entirely unfamiliar with. I’m talking about reading.
If books aren’t your thing, hear me out.
The world is in turmoil. We’re anxious, stressed, and trapped indoors with all of these very noisy feelings. Many of us are being forced to make numerous uncomfortable changes to our lives in order to get by in this strange new world we’ve been thrown into. Since we’re already experiencing that discomfort, why not venture into another new world (without even leaving the safety of the sofa?). This one might even help alleviate some of that quarantine cabin fever.
Connor Goodwin writes for the Atlantic that a few tedious weeks into quarantine, in order to escape the horrifying emptiness of our new mundane reality, “some might crave an experience that requires more active participation, something that can consume us just as we can consume it”. When binging old sitcoms on Netflix becomes repetitive and passive, reading, because of the way it demands our attention, may be a welcome and therapeutic escape.
In fact, Goodwin says that reading as a coping-mechanism is nothing new. “During World War I,” he writes, “librarians were stationed at military camps and hospitals to dispense books to soldiers. For those in camps, books alleviated homesickness and staved off boredom.” Now I’m not saying that life for those of us who get to lie around the house in pajamas is nearly as bad as being sent to the trenches, but the boost of optimism we can get from books may prove to be just as welcome.
The therapeutic value of a book lies both in the content of the book and the act of reading itself. There’s no rush in reading, and the body and the mind can relax, and be transported to another time and place. The freedom that comes with it, and with being able to create your own images rather than passively consuming images on a screen engages the mind in a highly liberating way. “With a film or TV show,” bibliotherapist (apparently this is a thing) Ella Berthoud told the BBC, “you’re given the visuals whereas with a novel you’re inventing them yourself, so it’s actually much more of a powerful event, because you’re involved.”.
In fact, reading isn’t only a great way to distract yourself from the impending apocalypse, but according to Cambridge Brain Sciences, the act of reading teaches us how to think better. But of course: “The most important benefits come from devoting the time and attention to longer, deeper content, such as a novel. Don’t go fooling yourself into considering a scroll through Facebook as a brain workout”. Derek Beres echoes this in an article he wrote for Big Think: “Information gathering in under 140 characters is lazy. The benefits of contemplation through narrative offer another story”. Particularly if the content you usually read has become corona-centric, citing escalating mortality numbers (and weeks of lockdown), switching up the content could be a welcome break (and workout) for your brain.
Unlike a physical workout, the strength we gain from this mental exercise may be slightly harder to see. So what exactly are some of these benefits?
According to Beres, reading from childhood produces more white matter in the brain. This carries information between areas of grey matter and helps information be processed more efficiently, improving system-wide communication. So get those ankle biters you’re stuck in the house with stuck in the pages of a picture book.
Beres adds that through giving readers the opportunity to enter the thoughts and feelings of a literary protagonist, we’re exercising empathy. “As you dive deeper into Rabbit Angstrom’s follies or Jason Taylor coming of age, you not only feel their pain and joy. You actually experience it,” and this can affect how we interact with people in the real world. It can improve our interpersonal skills and make us more human. But reading doesn’t only make us more emotionally intelligent, but can give our brains a boost all round. After a little bit of mental training, you make smarter decisions about yourself and those around you.
Reading longform text that’s not on an illuminated screen can also do wonders for the attention span, which is definitely something we’re all starting to have some trouble with in the age of Twitter and TikTok. If nothing else, the structured narrative of a novel can help bring order to a chaotic mind.
Granted, most of us are probably only reading in one language, but add another to your reading list, and the benefits multiply. According to Beres, when you read in another language, “the regions of your brain involved in spatial navigation and learning new information increase in size”. And as we already know, learning a new language improves your overall memory, which is never a bad thing. Read more about the benefits of learning a new language here.)
Do you really need more reason to stop spamming all your social media followers with pictures of your latest loaf of banana bread, your push-up count, and recycled Tiger King memes?
I think not.
Pick up one of those books you ambitiously bought years ago (for me it’s War and Peace) and have been using as a doorstop ever since, or get your butt over to projectgutenberg.org for something that’s free and in the public domain. If you still have books from school that you hated back in the day, try to go over them again with a fresh perspective.
If you’re an avid reader already, keep it up and you’ll get through this strange year in no time. If you haven’t touched a book since your last compulsory book review in school (and even then you only read the first chapter before relying on SparkNotes to fill in the rest), perhaps its time to see training your brain as a new Quarantine challenge. We nominate all of you.