This is your brain on books

Suppose you unexpectedly had three hours on a rainy Sunday afternoon with nothing to do – no grocery shopping, no laundry, no Internet.

Would you spend it with a REALLY GOOD friend?

Or would you spend it with a REALLY GOOD book?

* * * * *

When this question popped into my mind, I put it to Sam. He answered “friend.” I answered “book.” And that started me thinking about the role of books in my life.

I like reading a really good novel more than anything. More than gardening, making jewelry, cuddling with the cat, going out to a gourmet restaurant. The key phrase is “really good,” and I find myself becoming pickier and picker about books as I get older. But if a novel is really good, I would pretty much rather read about other people’s lives than live my own.

I’ve loved reading since second or third grade, when I tore through all two dozen books in the Oz series. I would get a new one and curl up on the couch and not put it down until my mother crowbarred me away to eat dinner or do homework.

I wonder if those kinds of positive early reading experiences rewire our brains – if they create some kind of permanent connection between the physical act of reading and neurotransmitters like dopamine that make us feel happy.

Maybe a child learns to read fluently, enjoys a particular bunch of books, and along the way carves neural pathways where the act of reading a book — regardless of the content of the book — generates comfort or pleasure?

I have no idea if anyone has tried to study this. But maybe the act of reading is my personal drug. Simply going through those familiar physical motions with my eyes and brain makes me secure and happy.

Then what about my decision as a child that I wanted to be a writer? At the time I wasn’t thinking of fame or fortune or the thrill of seeing my name on a book jacket. I just wanted to create more of what I loved.

I talked about this with my daughter, who is taking a high school psychology class. “If my brain responds to reading like smoking dope, does being a writer make me a dope dealer?” I asked.

She thought for a minute. “No, more like a grower,” she said. “The publishers would be the dealers.”

Well, when you consider the alternatives, reading is not at all a bad drug to choose. If only the problem with America’s schools were that kids were reading too much!

But still, there’s something unsettling about realizing I would choose reading a book over coffee with a friend. That sometimes I like reading better than living.

How about you – on that hypothetical rainy Sunday afternoon?

A really good book? Or a really good friend?

And what do you think that says about you?

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13 Responses to “This is your brain on books”

  1. Day I Started Reading Says:

    That is a really good question! I think if it’s raining, I would spend the time reading a really good book, because I like going to places with my friends and it’d be harder to do that when it’s raining. If it’s sunny and the weather is gorgeous, though, I would spend the time with a very good friend over a very good book. You can’t read a book anytime but it’s not everyday that you get good weather ^_^

    • Ilana DeBare Says:

      I just checked out your blog and read your introduction — so glad you found that special teacher and got turned on to reading! Do you have a favorite kind of book?

  2. Tom Moore Says:

    with a good friend….
    good books are easy to find…good friends are treasure beyond compare.

  3. Deb DeBare Says:

    friend, absolutely! best option of all would be to bring a book with a friend to the beach !!!

  4. debra solomon Says:

    I don’t see why the two are mutually exclusive. Why can’t I have both on a rainy afternoon?

  5. Meredith Says:

    Good book, no question about it.

    As to the neural pathways question – I think it may be more an association of losing oneself in a good story, rather than the physical act of reading. My son was a late reader (mildly dyslexic) but I gave him a steady diet of reading aloud and audiobooks, and once he became a fluent reader (late elementary) he became as much of a book addict as I am.

  6. susan Says:

    How about BOTH? Now that sounds like heaven to me.

  7. Melissa Says:

    Although I spent my childhood pretty much like you – curled up on the couch reading; (on sunny days having to be told to put-the-book-away-and-go-outside-and-play) I guess I am just a plain old book-lover and not a true addict because I would choose the company of a friend over reading a good book any day. I think it might also be an introvert-extrovert kind of thing…

  8. nankiber Says:

    Book! Especially if it’s raining; because as I get older I get more homebody-ish–especially when the weather is bad–and because when you come right down to it, there isn’t anything I’d rather do than curl up with a book.

  9. bratschegirl Says:

    Book, hands down. I have friends I value, and whose company I enjoy tremendously and seek out regularly, and there’s a very important place for them in my life and (I hope) for me in theirs. But underneath it all I’m somewhere between self-sufficient and a loner, and for me there’s just nothing that compares to the pleasure of getting lost for hours in a wonderful story that’s compellingly told.

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