WORLD BOOK DAY | Why paper books are better for your brain
“One glance at a book and you hear the voice of another person, perhaps someone dead for 1,000 years. To read is to voyage through time.” – Carl Sagan
More than ever, our lives have revolved around a screen. Whether it’s a weekly meeting with colleagues, your child’s remote ‘classroom’ for months on end, virtual quiz nights with friends or a catch-up with Granny and Grandpa, the digital world has allowed us to connect in ways that we never thought possible.
On the flipside, people are also experiencing fatigue and burnout due to the crumbling boundaries between work and home life. The paper book vs e-book conundrum has been the topic of countless research papers and articles around comprehension and brain function, but in the end, numerous studies have shown that paper and ink seem to eclipse their electronic counterparts.
“We don’t need to argue the merits of reading. Various studies have found that just six to 10 minutes a day can reduce stress and improve mental fitness, and literacy proponents will tell you that it doesn’t matter what you read, as long as you are reading,” says Samantha Choles, communications manager for the Paper Manufacturers Association of South Africa (PAMSA). “But there does seem to be a benefit to reading on paper.”
While the death knell for the paper book has been prematurely tolled on numerous occasions, the paper book keeps making comebacks. The pandemic, it seems, was good for book sales with more than 200 million print books sold in the UK (the first time since 2012 that number has been exceeded). Similarly in the US, printed book sales amounted to just over 750 million units last year, marking growth of 82%, the highest year-on-year increase since 2010.
“The feeling or scent of a ‘real book’ aside, paper is the perfect panacea for digital overload,” suggests Choles, who recalls her then Grade 1 son bemoaning the amount of online learning last year. “He said, ‘Mommy, I just want to do work on paper now.’”
Another widely examined area in the world of reading is that human brains were not even designed for the act of reading, but have, over aeons, evolved to make sense of letters, words and sentences. In the world of neuroscience, reading is considered neurobiologically demanding, which makes it a form of exercise. Exercise, as we know, keeps us sharper, agile and more resilient. Why should it be different for our grey matter?
A paper book offers a sense of control and is more immersive. “We know where we are how and how far we have to go, but we can also lose track of time in a thoroughly gripping paperback,” says Choles.
What about the kids?
Bestselling children’s author Julia Donaldson famously refused an e-book version of her most famous title, The Gruffalo. “The publishers showed me an e-book of Alice in Wonderland,” she told The Guardian.
“They said, ‘Look, you can press buttons and do this and that’, and they showed me the page where Alice’s neck gets longer,” said Donaldson. “I thought, well, if the child’s doing that, they are not going to be listening or reading.”
Educationalist Dr Lauren Stretch, founder of NGO Early Inspiration and ECD specialist, is an enthusiastic champion of the paper book. She believes that early contact with books teaches children to respect and care for them, while physical contact with a volume – turning the pages – creates a greater feeling of engagement with the medium as opposed to merely holding a tablet.
Stretch also regards time spent huddled over a book as absolutely invaluable; it’s a great way to unplug and be present, even if it means reading the same book every night with your four-year-old.
There is a plethora of literature and studies about the impact of technology on sleep quality and our overall health. It is widely accepted that the use of light-emitting use of light-emitting electronic devices for reading, communication, and entertainment “before bedtime prolongs the time it takes to fall asleep, delays the circadian clock, suppresses levels of the sleep-promoting hormone melatonin”.
“Put your mobile phone on charge, and don’t look at it until its alarm wakes you up in the morning. “Instead, choose a paper book as your night cap,” advises Choles, who admits to sleeping better when following this practice.
Writer and neuroscience enthusiast Kerry Benson offers good advice: “When you need a break from the digital world, don’t underestimate the power of paper and ink. Consider turning off your electronic devices, getting a book, and curling up to turn the page.”