If I ask you how many countries in the world you’ve had the privilege of travelling to, some of you may say two, others five, and some might have even been to ten or more. But if you’re someone like me who hasn’t travelled beyond the native land, it is often perceived that we are missing certain delights of divergent cultures, and different people that one meets elsewhere in the world. Well, personally, I have never found myself missing that, as I have a different way of travelling not only to all the places you would find on a map, but also to places and spheres beyond that, those which sometimes could only exist within one’s imagination. If you’re an avid reader and a book lover like me, you will know exactly what I’m talking about.
Reading is of course the alternate method of travel that I referred to before. Through the imaginative genius of authors that write about distant, exotic lands, and mystical kingdoms, we receive the magical power of visiting those lands while lying down in the comfort of our living room sofa, through the portal created by the words that enter our mind through a dog eared copy of a simple little book. Your experience could vary from wrecking mischief together with Elizabeth Allen at a faraway boarding school in England, to fighting crimes and solving mysteries alongside Sherlock Holmes or Robert Langdon (if you don’t know who Langdon is, go read Da Vinci Code right now!). The best part of reading is that, of course you get to experience all these adventures and delights inside the comfort of your own mind, whichever way you prefer, without even having to face the real perils that these escapades might ensue.
Now especially within the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, with us being restricted to our homes, not being able to go out or meet our friends, the “screen time” that a person faces has escalated significantly increased. From having to read dozens of research articles in order to write our assignments, typing at the computer until your fingers give away, to binge watching Netflix series as entertainment, our lives now revolve around a four cornered glowing screen. This in turn, would and already has affected our mental health. Burnout, anxiety and feelings of isolation are at the core of the issues that today’s generation face. There are different ways of coping with the change of temperaments under the new normal. Among these, research has shown that reading in particular is a highly efficient mode of relieving stress, reducing anxiety and overcoming isolation, which would especially be beneficial during the context of the pandemic.
The Canadian philosopher Marshall McLuhan once said, “The medium is the message”. What he meant by this was that whatever medium we use to absorb content, it is actually not the content that shapes our mind, but the medium itself which does that. When we read a book or watch a movie, we are doing the same thing; that is, we are trying to escape the reality for a little while and entertain ourselves by entering into a different world, a world where our problems do not weigh us down. However, to consume something through a screen is not the same as consuming that same content through the words present in a book. The magical nature of reading is in its being mentally transporting, in a different way than movies or YouTube videos might offer. Dr. Shyam Bhat (a psychiatrist) illustrates screen time as a more passive experience than reading. He says that when we read, “the brain transforms the words on the paper into imagery, which engage senses like vision, touch, and sound, cognitive abilities like logical thinking, memory, and interpretation, as well as what we call the theory of mind, which is the ability to understand other people’s thoughts and feelings”. Whereas when engaging with visual media, our brain does not have to exert itself as much, which is why it’s called a passive experience.
You might have experienced this yourself, if you have watched a movie adaptation of one of your favorite books and seen that the characters have been oversimplified or felt that the movie does not perform justice to the emotional engagement you had when reading the book. Reading for me is a more personalized experience, which liberates one’s mind and unleashes their imaginative genius.
Reading is not a mere form of escapism either. It also acts as a method by which we can reduce stress and anxiety. If you are feeling angry or worried, the words in a book would surely help you calm down, provide physical as well as a mental relief. It is an efficient mode of stress relief during the time of the pandemic, as it’s something you can do at home. People have found that reading also makes you sleep better. How many of you go to bed each night with the intention of having an early night, but end up scrolling mindlessly through Instagram or Facebook? I think most of us find ourselves in this situation, which causes difficulty sleeping, as we then find it difficult to shut down our brains, even after we switch off our phone. There is actually a scientific reason behind this, as the blue screen from our phones prevents melatonin (the hormone that makes us fall asleep) from working. However, reading a book before sleeping can improve the quality of sleep you get as well. Then of course, with a good night’s sleep, you can face the next day with a fresh and bright outlook.
So, if you have been feeling overwhelmed and burdened by the change of lifestyle that resulted from the halting of many of the activities you planned on doing and goals which you intended to achieve this year, remember that you’re not alone. There are many ways of coping with the stress and anxiety that we feel, reading certainly being one very efficient way. Your coping mechanisms may be different than any other person. But ultimately, the goal is to survive yet more trying times and come out as stronger than ever.
– Rtr Thanuri Somasiri
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