I’ve explained why the internet is addictive, and suggested some things to do about it—creating boundaries, turning off notifications, and even getting help in extreme cases. But I’m not suggesting that we unplug; I am suggesting that we unplug sometimes. And High McGuire, writing for Harvard Business Review, suggests another way we can do this: read a book.
His suggestion is not about the tactile experience. of turning pages and smelling paper. He is more concerned with how the experience of reading a book slows us down and saves energy. A book is a slow burn, so to speak, allowing us to wind down and disconnect gradually. The addictive quality of the internet is one thing; the bio-energy costs associated with it are another. Our brain uses 20% of all the energy we burn, and clearly it burns more calories to process lots of new information than to stare out a window. A book is somewhere in between, a respite from our digitally connected distractions that are not only potentially addictive, but potentially exhausting.
Evidently people who organize their lives around more focused activities like reading a book are less tired and less neuro-chemically depleted, says Daniel Levitan, a neuroscientist. A good book is more restful—and helpful— than any number of cat videos. Or episodes on Netflix. In a world where work may require hours dealing with our data and our devices, a book provides a virtual oasis for the mind, a well of refreshment in a desert of sterility and stimulation.
And there is less stress in a book. In fact, reading a book may help us fall asleep and sleep more deeply. Neuropsychologist David Lewis, discussing a British study in 2009, claims that reading a book in the evening can reduce stress by as much as 68%. He says, “It really doesn’t matter what book you read, by losing yourself in a thoroughly engrossing book you can escape from the worries and stresses of the everyday world and spend a while exploring the domain of the author’s imagination.”
Although there are plenty of reasons to read a book, the Pew Research Center reports only one quarter of adults in America actually read one in 2014. This is sad and scary. But the primary benefit of doing so may be the relief it provides from the pings and harrows of our outrageous future, the one where we are tempted to literally plug ourselves into a network.
That would be exhausting.