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Films or books – what’s the (brain) difference?

After a recent talk to staff at Tonbridge School about the reading brain and why and how to promote reading for pleasure in a school, someone asked a great question. I wanted to answer it here as it’s an important question.

“All those benefits also come from watching films so if I want to encourage the boys [it could apply just well to anyone] to read, how should I answer when they say they’d rather watch a film? What are the differences in terms of the effects on brains, minds and health?”

First, there’s nothing wrong with watching films. It’s a perfectly valid way of accessing a story, including a story that has also been written as a novel. It’s a good way to relax, particularly if you need to escape from intrusive thoughts and take your mind off worries. That is something reading also does but watching films does it just as well. It can also be easier for many people to get into that zone of escapism, because watching a film takes less effort so it can be easier to dive into it. So, I’m not saying don’t watch films.

Second, however, note that “less effort” thing. One of the things about films, compared to reading, is that it’s a passive activity. You sit there and watch; scenes and characters are fed to you; you do not engage your imagination because everything is there on a plate. In terms purely of relaxation, that’s not a problem, but…

… it does mean that films would have less value in terms of a) exercising your brain and b) empowering and unleashing your imagination and creativity. So books, in that sense, will give you more.

Connected to that, reading a book uses a very large number of brain areas and watching a film relatively few. This is partly because there is less effort involved in watching but also because a whole load of skills aren’t being used: most of the skills that make up the act of reading, including visualisation, narrative transportation and the physical acts of manipulating and decoding print. The language skills used are different, too, and more complex when reading compared to watching passively.

Third, you have more control over a book than a film. You go at your speed, stop and go back when you want. Crucially, you get a sense of whether something is about to happen that you aren’t ready for or aren’t willing to go through – and you can stop. With a film, that is much harder and sometimes impossible. By the time the shocking image is there, it’s seared on your mind and won’t go away. But with a book you can control whether or when or how quickly you do or don’t absorb it. Or if you miss something or don’t understand, you can easily go back.

Sharing a book with a child as well screen time for language and social skillsFourth, reading is a vitally important set of skills. A 14-year-old might say, “But I can read really well by now so I don’t need to keep doing it.” Not true. General ability to read isn’t likely to fade with lack of use but fluency is, at the margin, and ability to read deeply certainly is. How many of you adults have noticed that nowadays you struggle to concentrate on something with long paragraphs or sentences, an article that’s longer than a couple of pages? That’s because we do that less nowadays so we have diminished that ability. I know I have – or I had, until I decided to start practising again. I now deliberately sit down to read something deep and difficult every now and then and it’s amazing how quickly you notice the skill improve again.

The more we read the better we get. And we are far more likely to do that quantitative reading if we enjoy it. THAT’S  ONE REASON WHY READING FOR PLEASURE IS SO IMPORTANT: BECAUSE IF WE DON’T GET PLEASURE FROM IT WE WON’T DO IT AND IF WE DON’T DO IT WE WILL BECOME LESS GOOD AT IT.

Fifth, the more you read the more likely you are to come across new words. New words are empowering. the more words you have, the better your set of tools for expressing yourself.

And finally, the more you read the better you’ll write. Films can’t do that. Who wouldn’t want to be a better writer than they are? Being able to express yourself clearly, elegantly, powerfully, beautifully, in words – written or spoken – is a super-power. It gets you places. It makes you feel great. The ability to express your meaning is absolutely a skill you’d want.

So, if you want to inspire and encourage teenagers to pick up books as well as watching films, I’d say to them:

  • Films and books are both great for relaxing; both show you other worlds, take you inside other lives, open your mind; and there’s no reason not to watch films
  • But books give you more:
    • They boost your imagination, creativity, thinking skills
    • They exercise more parts of your brain – you’re making your brain better in many ways
    • They make you better at reading and at reading more difficult and deep things, which gives you access to opportunities, jobs, promotion, and makes you feel good about yourself
    • They teach you new words
    • They make you better at writing, allowing you to express yourself powerfully whether for pleasure or work
  • Language is the gift that humans are wired and born for – it will bring you immeasurable benefits and pleasures – and reading books is how you grow that gift

I say do both!


Why not book me?

If you’d like me to talk about the science of reading, the detailed benefits of reading for pleasure and the fascinating differences between reading simple or complex texts, fiction and non-fiction, and digital or print, and, crucially, strategies for building a reading school or a reading home, contact me through the Speaking page. My speaking diary is fully booked till March 2022 but we can talk provisional dates and details.

 

 

 

 

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