When it comes to relaxing, there are a few methods that run counter to what you might assume is most helpful. Some people just want to turn into a vegetable on the couch, and that works, to a certain degree. But video games, television, and reading are all excellent ways of combining rest, relaxation, and beneficial mental engagement. They all emphasize different modes of thought— video games force you to adapt to quicker reaction speeds and problem- solving; reading and television allow you to inhabit the minds of others. The media itself is not important, actually; it’s just that it is pleasurable mental engagement that leaves you feeling better about yourself after the fact.
Keep the words flowing by buying me a coffee.
And now, to move on to something you may not have considered a “proper” relaxation technique: watching TV. Along with video games, sitting in front of the tube is frequently considered mind-numbing at worst and a waste of time at best. But professor Kevin Warwick at Reading University, a cyberneticist and speaker on the way humans interface with technology, claims that watching TV is not the brain- dead activity we sometimes accuse it of being, but even better for us than listening to classical music or doing a crossword. He presented his findings in the 2004 Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, along with other ideas.
Students who were asked to perform cognitive tests before and after a TV- watching session showed a statistically significant increase in IQ of five points— and curiously, this effect was more pronounced in women. The kind of TV program also played a role, but it’s likely that more research is needed to understand exactly why this is, and what it means.
Though a five-point IQ increase might not seem like much, a small and temporary intellectual boost like this might be just the thing before an important exam or event that requires your best performance. At the very least, it will leave you feeling far less stressed than cramming with a book until the last minute! Speaking of books, Warwick actually found that curling up with something to read for a half hour decreased intellectual capacity— something that would certainly give your old teachers and parents pause. But could this possibly be true? Could watching TV really be better for you than reading? Well, the answer is probably quite complex.
We do have plenty of evidence to suggest that as far as brain-healthy habits go, reading is as good as it gets. It’s difficult to overstate the many benefits of reading—a person who reads exercises their mind and imagination, expands their horizons and develops their ability to focus carefully for long periods.
Beyond the actual mechanics of reading words on a page, reading books opens up doors to profound ideas and new worlds— anything you like, really. Perhaps we all appreciate the value of reading because it’s so much alike to thinking; when we read, we talk to ourselves mentally, we imagine, create, form ideas and opinions, even converse in a way with the author or the characters they create. We turn concepts over, play with images and words, and overall share in the great buffet of different perspectives that are out there in the world.
The right kind of TV certainly contains these kinds of elements, so it turns out that we can’t just write things off completely.
Perhaps what makes reading seem so wonderful is that is positions your brain as an active participant, rather than a mere observer who cannot engage with the content. When you read, your brain is hard at work interpreting symbols, synthesizing concepts, ticking along to weave the most complex and abstract mental images from nothing more than marks on a page— remarkable, when you think about it. While you sit quietly, your brain is whizzing along like an orchestra conductor, rapidly stitching together a dynamic inner experience that will be unlike anyone else’s.
Reading is a part of human heritage— manipulating language and symbols this way is so characteristically human that it’s built into the very structure of our brains.
In fact, reading about an event and actually experiencing it both activate the same regions in the brain—in other words, reading is not just an intellectual activity.
Despite Warwick’s observations, many more scientists have found that regular reading has profound benefits for our brains. David Comer Kidd and Emanuele Castano designed research in 2013 that seems to show that reading literary fiction drastically improves people’s “theory of mind.” This is basically the ability of the human mind to comprehend that other people have realities—beliefs, experiences, desires—different from one’s own which motivate them. Naturally, reading narrative fiction encourages the consideration of other perspectives and inner worlds, enhancing empathy and imagination in the process.
This boost in emotional intelligence is also why socializing is so good for us—it forces us out of our own narrow cognitive limits and allows us to “try on” different mental modes, gaining a new understanding and perspective on our own. The benefits for relationships and creativity are obvious. A 2011 Stanford study by Raymond Mar showed overlap in the regions involved in both storytelling and social interactions.
This “fluid intelligence” is about improving your emotional capacity to comprehend others. In reading we learn how to listen to others, to interpret, to synthesize random units and events into a coherent and deeply meaningful narrative.
Reading a good book is like having a good conversation—it can help us understand who we are, learn more about the world, enrich our thinking and feeling, and perhaps best of all, offer up a stylized, novel world to our imaginations that’s valuable simply because it engrosses us. Reading can help us do all the other things we’ve identified as beneficial—be sociable, relax, even connect with ancestors.
Most activities in our modern routines are scattered, forcing us to split our attention and multitask. But reading is about sustained, focused concentration. It’s quietly meditative, this choice to actively zone out the rest of the world, and makes you an active participant rather than someone constantly and passively reacting to the next phone ping, or browsing online for the next distraction. Give your attention span a workout by pushing yourself to focus on reading for longer and longer periods. In a world of instant gratification and an internet designed to bombard you with a never-ending conveyer belt of stimuli, choose to actively go into depth with reading, slowing down and taking the time to properly engage with each new word, one at a time.
Much like watching TV, the benefits of reading likely depend on the kind of material we read. There is nothing innately beneficial about physically moving your eyes over a printed page or intellectually comprehending the meaning it holds. In fact, reading can be tiring and cause eye strain! Rather, the benefits are all about the deeper significance, the point of the story, the new information gleaned and how that relates to our own lives.
If you’d like to reap the benefits of reading, start by finding material you’re genuinely interested in. There’s no point forcing yourself to read a “classic” that you actually find boring. You don’t even have to read fiction. Pick material that you find yourself wanting to read, then allot some time every single day to be quiet and simply read. Start with fifteen minutes or so, and push yourself to read more and more as your attention span improves. Eventually, you may find yourself knocking out an hour of reading without even noticing.
You’re more likely to get reading done if you build it into your everyday routines.
Read every day on the train to work. Put a book next to your bed so you can read for twenty minutes before bed every evening.
Dedicate a quiet room in your house as the “reading corner” and combine it with other self-care habits like a nice cup of herbal tea, meditation, or just contemplating the sound of the wind outside. Try a Kindle or eReader, and experiment with new authors, new ideas, new formats. Avid readers don’t read out of a sense of responsibility or because they’re hoping to improve their brain power. Rather, they’re driven by curiosity and enjoyment, and their boost in intelligence is merely a side effect to help them keep up.
Considering all these ways to relax—some less conventional than others—might have you thinking that your daily routine is a little more useful than you previously gave it credit for. While many of us tend to dismiss time spent goofing off or watching nonsense on TV, why not reframe this time as beneficial for your brain? Time off from the overly analytical, mechanical and calculating mode of living allows other aspects to emerge—creative thinking, relaxation, intuition, and appreciation and joy.
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Peter Hollins is a bestselling author, human psychology researcher, and a dedicated student of the human condition.
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