May 19, 2020

Studies find that people are finding more time to read and their brains basically can’t process books anymore


This is your brain on mystery novels (Public Domain)

Ahh, the age-old conundrum.

According to the Guardian, a survey of 1,000 people in the UK claim that their reading time has nearly doubled, that is from 3.5 hours a week to 6.

The (probably very obvious) reason for the surge that most respondents gave was that they “had more time” and that “they wanted to stay entertained.” Only about a third of them said that it provided “an escape from the crisis,” although they certainly aren’t leaning into it with their choice of reading materials. They are primarily interested in crime and thrillers, while the interest in “dystopian” fiction has plummeted.

Why crime? The detective blah blah restoring order blah blah blah mysteries imply resolution blah blah blah society is righted by the end of each book BLAH. You know this one, and we are in week 10 of our lockdown, so let’s just cut to the interesting stuff.

Constance Grady at Vox has written a column addressing the oft-heard refrain “I can’t read anymore.” The (probably very obvious) reason they can’t read anymore is because they are “terrified, angry, and sad,” but just to drive home a (probably very obvious) point, a medical expert was consulted to add a sheen of scientific data over the simple, humanist explanation.

Enter Oliver J. Robinson, a neuroscientist and psychologist based at the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience at University College London, who has absolutely no intention of providing a neat answer. In other words, a true man of science and not a huckster.

How does anxiety affect our attention span? Well, nobody really knows, Robinson says. He walks through all the reasons anxiety is useful (eg, walking home alone in the dark, it helps us be attuned to imminent attack) and the difference between anxiety and fear (the former is a generalized feeling surrounding uncertainties, while fear is a specific response to a specific stimulus).

This is your brain on Twitter. (Public Domain)

The pandemic is of course the big daddy (a technical scientific term) of all uncertainties, and so the anxiety response is predictably, and perhaps even appropriately, off the charts. But it’s also one whose usual coping tools are actually completely useless and just more destructive. As he has it:

I can go on Twitter, I can go on the internet, I can search nonstop, trying to resolve this uncertainty.

The problem is that you’re never going to actually resolve it. It’s not like tomorrow someone’s going to go, “Here’s the solution to coronavirus. Here’s the vaccine.” What we’re doing is trying to resolve this uncertainty that is unresolvable.

And in the end, you’re just promoting this anxiety. You’re trying to find the answer; you can’t find the answer; you hear about this conspiracy theory, that conspiracy theory. It just gets worse and worse and worse.

So, is this “anxiety” somehow ruining “our concentration” asks Grady. To which Robinson finishes by responding, “I’d be lying if I tried to say this is what anxiety is, and this is why people are having difficulty concentrating. Sorry!”

So, uh, I guess just saying “people are having trouble reading because they are terrified, angry, and sad,” might serve us better without any scientistic gloss this time. But let’s go back to our thrillers and detectives.

Remember that very eloquent passage above about the “blah blah blah restoring order blah blah blah” (I ask because I know from the interview of Dr. Robinson that anxiety may (or may not) be involved with a set of mental disorders that could (but not in every occasion) result in a lower functioning of memory (but not all forms of memory).)

Well, it would appear that both articles which reach very different conclusions (we are all reading vs. nobody’s brain works anymore) are founded on the same argument: we are all reading to see order restored, but one kind results in an increase from 3.5 hours a week to 6 weeks of Harry Hole keeping Norway on the straight-and-narrow while the other results in an ever deepening pit of anxiety and despair.

So guys, read thrillers! (Was that the conclusion I was supposed to draw…?)

Here, try some of these.



Athena Bryan is an editor at Melville House.