We live in the era of information overload.
There are thousands of articles, ads, pictures, quizzes, and all kinds of junk, that fill the far reaches of the Internet.
It’s no longer difficult to find something to read, or do. It’s hard finding something worthwhile to engage in. It is overwhelming to sift through endless piles of clickable content.
Information abounds—yet the quality of information likely impacts the way we think. The ability to focus for long periods of time has given way to endless attention deficit problems and a generation of pro multitaskers.
Not to mention, so much time is dedicated to searching, scanning, sifting, and evaluating content, just to see if it is worth a few minutes of our time.
You find yourself staring longingly at your computer, hoping desperately to find something to satisfy your thirst for knowledge and craving for entertainment.
After hours of searching with little to no luck, you begin to realize something.
You’re slowly, but surely, turning your brain into mush.
HOW THE INTERNET IMPACTS OUR THINKING
The problem I’ve described isn’t necessarily a new one. Many 20th century thinkers from Nietzsche to Marshall McLuhan have studied the relationship between information, its medium, and our thought processes. In his article Is Google Making Us Stupid? writer Nicholas Carr makes this realization:
My mind now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles. Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski.
This fundamental shift in the medium—the Internet—changes how we engage with information. While this might not seem like a bad thing (we do have the world on our fingertips, after all) there are some major disadvantages. Maryanne Wolf, a cognitive neuroscientist at Tufts University, describes the following predicament:
Our ability to interpret text, to make rich mental connections that form when we read deeply and without distraction, remains largely disengaged.
In our content-packed world, we are losing our ability to engage with things in more complex and meaningful ways.
We are becoming a society that is merely good at finding answers, not understanding them.
READING FICTION AS A CURE
Reading for fun—especially fiction—may help restore some of our critical thinking abilities.
I’m talking about reading anything from classic science fiction, or crime thrillers, or historical fiction, to fantasy and realistic stuff. I’m talking about the nerdiest fantasies and the darkest dystopian futures. I’m talking about incredibly detailed narratives of pure imagination to creatively altered pieces of history. There are endless possibilities.
Reading has the potential to improve our ability to focus, giving us the practice we need to engage with content more deeply than our jet-ski adventures across the Internet allow.
You’ll find that reading fiction has numerous other advantages that can impact you in a positive way.
READING TO LEARN HOW TO LASER FOCUS
Reading fiction tricks you into thinking.
Unlike television, books don’t do all the work for you. You have to organize and categorize information, make mental notes, think about the picture the author is painting, and paint it in your head yourself.
A truly good book allows you to paint a picture that is completely different than someone else’s while maintaining the integrity of the characters, the story, and the plot. They give you just enough to go off of, letting your mind populate it with details.
Your motivation for engaging is simple: you want to know what’s going on, you want to find out what’s happening next, and you want it to make sense. You engage because you need to.
Quite simply, reading forces you to practice focusing. You learn to find key points, to pick up on details, to keep a mental map of what’s happening.
Not only that, but you’re making mental evaluations as well—about what might happen next, about the author’s intent, about character’s actions.
Even if you can’t read for very long, there is value in learning to jump back into a story. When you read, you build a long-term relationship with the content, you store it for later, and once you pick it up again, you dig it out of your mind. It’s an incredibly useful tool, especially in real life.
EXPANDING YOUR CREATIVE SENSES AND EXPRESSION
One of the absolute best things about reading fiction is how it exposes you to unparalleled creativity. As you focus in on a story, you’re actively engaging with it to create a mental picture. The story, at this point, is not just the author’s vision. You’ve made it your own; you’ve applied stylistic elements to paint a picture that fits with the author’s voice.
You’re not just experiencing something creative—you’re actively engaging in the manifestation of it. Sure, it takes some mental work, but it is immensely satisfying.
On the flip side of this, you are exposed to countless tools of expression. Reading fiction helps you learn vocabulary and sentence structure. It helps you learn how to describe a place, people, and situations. It helps you understand how to elicit emotions because you’ve been exposed to how authors do it.
This isn’t merely useful for writing fiction. It helps you develop written and verbal communication skills that can be useful when you’re telling a story to friends, or writing a professional memo at work.
UNDERSTANDING THE REAL WORLD (AND ESCAPING IT)
Have you ever gotten lost in a story?
Deeply, totally, utterly entrenched in another world, far from the one we live in? Yet despite the differences that make it so unique, you find it full of people and situations not unlike the ones we experience ourselves?
After all, writers are emotional manipulators. They are trying to make you invest in the story, in the characters, in what happens to them. Authors do this by invoking real emotions, drawing from real situations, and encapsulating them in imaginative descriptions, foreign landscapes, and fantastical elements that grip our attention.
Fiction is a lens into the real world, wrapped in layers of creativity that make the real world understandable. The power of fiction lies in its ability to capture emotion, to illustrate good and evil, to teach something about what it means to be human that we will undoubtedly experience in our own lives—whether directly or indirectly.
Thus, reading and exploring actions and consequences and human relationships can help us navigate real world situations in our lives.
Not only can reading fiction help you understand the world we live in, but also it can help you escape from it.
Think of it like this: reading is like meditating. Distractions are swept away, and you have a moment to just think about one thing—the story. This can be liberating, rejuvenating, and relaxing.
SO TAKE A BREAK
Let’s be honest, you’re all caught up on your Netflix.
So just pick up a book. You won’t regret it.
Take a break from content overload, and sit down with a book for a few hours. Maybe just read for half an hour every day. It doesn’t take much. But soon, you’ll feel the benefits of reading for fun. And you will only want to read more.