Deep Reading – The Ultimate Brain Training To Improve Your Concentration?

14 March 2023 |
Episode 8 |
21:52

Episode summary

Do you struggle to read a book these days? What about longer documents, like reports or contracts? Your executive attention is to blame! In this episode, I explain how practising deep reading, where you engage with and focus on text, tuning out all other distractions, can help improve your executive attention and restore your capacity for concentration. I explore whether it matters what you read, the very different ways that you read online vs offline, and if it’s possible to practise deep reading on a Kindle. I also share some practical steps for cultivating a deep reading habit of your own.
 

Episode notes

In this episode, I talk about:

  • How digital distractions have turned even the most avid readers into casual readers
  • What deep reading is and how it can boost your executive attention by training your brain to concentrate for long periods of time
  • The paradox of requiring focus to engage in deep reading, in order to improve your overall capacity for focus
  • The benefits of deep reading for other cognitive functions and its role in the development of key intellectual and emotional skills
  • Why what you read is less important than how you’re reading it
  • How the offline reading experience is different to the online reading experience, and why skim reading is causing you to develop cognitive impatience
  • The possible impact on your personal and/or professional life from failing to maintain an ability to read longer, denser, or more difficult texts
  • Whether you can engage in deep reading using e-readers such as the Kindle, and the effect of such devices on your ability to comprehend and retain what you read
  • Practical steps you can take to cultivate a deep reading habit and restore your attention

Resources and tools mentioned:

 

Episode transcript

Expand to read a transcript of this episode

[00:00:34] Hey guys, welcome back to The Digital Diet Podcast. I hope you’re doing well and you’re feeling good today. We are here with Episode 8 and, if you’ve listened to the last couple of episodes, then you’ll know that right now we’re talking about all things attention here on the podcast. Specifically, your executive attention, which is responsible for your ability to maintain focus on a specific task, especially when that task is more complex.

[00:01:03] Now, we’re all struggling with this. We find it so difficult to concentrate on the important things that we need to get done, even when they’re urgent. We’re easily distracted by our digital devices and everything that they give us access to, from social media and the internet, to email and WhatsApp.

[00:01:22] And the problem has gotten so bad that we can’t even blame other people or other things, because a lot of the time we’re actually interrupting and distracting ourselves. Particularly when we try to multitask. So our capacity for executive attention and focus has become severely depleted, and we’re on a quest to build it back up.

[00:01:44] In the last episode, we talked about how exposing yourself to nature is one way to do that. By which I mean being in the presence of nature rather than flashing your private bits at some daffodils in the park, just in case that wasn’t clear. And today we’re going to talk about another method, which is somewhat paradoxical because it’s often one of the first things that people notice they’re struggling with when they start thinking about how difficult they’re finding it to focus.

[00:02:11] That something is reading, or more specifically what’s known as deep reading, where you really engage with and focus on the text, tuning out other distractions. I want you to ask yourself, when was the last time that you read a physical book from cover to cover? And how long did it take you? Because the answers might surprise you.

[00:02:33] Now, I know not everyone considers themselves to be a reader. And I’m probably an extreme example. But reading books is one of the things that the digital age very stealthily robbed me of, without me even noticing. As I’ve mentioned before on the podcast, I’m also a writer. So it probably won’t surprise you to learn that growing up, I was a massive bookworm.

[00:02:57] I was into books from a very young age. Even when I watch home movies of me as a toddler, I was always sitting with one of my parents reading. And when asked to get something to play with, it would more often than not be a book rather than any other kind of toy. By the time I was in school, I was going to the local library every Saturday, picking out three books, because that’s the maximum that you were allowed to take out, and then spending my whole weekend with my head buried in books.

[00:03:25] That was my equivalent of what would today be a mobile phone. I would want to bring my books to the dinner table, and feel completely put out by having to put my books down to eat. I would get told off for trying to stay up past my bedtime to secretly read books into the night under the covers.

[00:03:42] And I remember going on these long car journeys to visit family friends that lived in other parts of the country. And even though it would make me carsick, I’d still insist on reading until the nausea forced me to stop. And by the end of the weekend, I would have finished at least two of those three books, and be almost done with the third one.

[00:04:01] So it’s not really surprising that I went on to write books. But what might be surprising is that one minute I couldn’t get enough of reading, and the next this obsession with reading just went poof and disappeared. At least that’s how it felt, because I don’t remember ever stopping reading.

[00:04:20] What’s worse is that I didn’t even notice that it had happened. And it was only when I was doing my coaching training that I realised that reading, this thing that had been such a huge part of my life and my identity, no longer was. And when I dug a bit deeper to find out why, I realised that it had been replaced by all the other things that I did on my digital devices.

[00:04:44] Reading had been replaced by scrolling through Instagram, messaging my friends on WhatsApp, and binge-watching Netflix. Instead of reaching for books, I was reaching for my phone or for the remote. And, over time, this habit had replaced my reading habit. So when I learned that reading is one of the ways that you can restore your executive attention and focus, I thought, “Great! This should be a walk in the park for me.” I love reading, I’m good at reading, and this is the perfect excuse to get back to it.

[00:05:14] And I don’t know if any of you have had similar experiences, but the first time I consciously tried to pick up a book and read, it was excruciating. I found myself re-reading the same passages over, and over, and over again, and I was going so slowly that I must have read maybe three or four pages in the course of an hour. It was absolutely ridiculous.

[00:05:38] I didn’t understand it at first. I knew that I found it difficult to read long documents and clinical papers for work, but I had put that down to being busy, and sometimes down to not being entirely stimulated by the content. I knew that I was struggling a bit to get through all of the reading for my coach training, but I knew that I was interested in that, so I figured it was down to being tired and just the sheer volume that I needed to get through each week.

[00:06:04] But it was really only this experience of trying to read for pleasure again that hammered home just how poor my ability to focus had become. Which is why I described deep reading for executive attention as a paradox, because you’re doing it to improve your focus and concentration, but to do it well itself requires focus and concentration.

[00:06:26] Being that there are plenty of other ways to restore your attention, you might be wondering why you should bother with deep reading if it’s so hard. Why not just get up and go for a walk in nature instead? But just as with nature, there are other benefits of deep reading for your brain that are pretty important. And even with the rise in technology, you’re never going to totally get away from needing to read text that is longer than a tweet. So, despite the initial struggle, I pushed through. And here’s why I think you should too.

[00:06:57] Deep reading improves your executive attention because it forces you to be present and remain concentrated for long periods of time, uninterrupted. It trains your brain to get better at regulating your attention and ignoring distractions over an extended period, effectively giving you the opportunity to practice maintaining sustained focus. And you know what they say, practice makes perfect.

[00:07:22] When you build up your capacity for sustained focus, it also affects your entire executive function, so all the higher cognitive skills that are necessary for you to get ahead and be successful in life. I’m talking about things like learning, memory, problem-solving, decision-making. They all require executive attention. So by training your brain to focus, you’ll be improving your cognitive abilities too.

[00:07:49] And, even more importantly, when you engage in deep reading, it’s not just about developing your capacity for sustained focus. There are lots of simultaneous cognitive processes happening in your brain that are ultimately good for you. According to Marianne Wolfe, an author and cognitive neuroscientist who has extensively studied the impact of digital technology on reading and literacy, deep reading is itself a cognitive process that involves the complex interplay of different brain functions.

[00:08:18] So, not just your attention, but also memory and language processing. It can also involve using your imagination and visualisation skills, which engages your brain’s visual and spatial processing systems. So there’s quite a lot going on in your brain when you’re reading. And this is because when you read, you’re not just consuming the words on the page, but you’re enjoying a deep and immersive experience with the text that requires you to decode, comprehend, and interpret their meaning.

[00:08:45] And it turns out that these processes are important for the development of several intellectual and emotional skills, including the ability to internalise knowledge or learn; analogical reasoning, which is the ability to see the relative similarity between two situations or events and use that similarity to make inferences about one of those events based on the other; the ability to understand different perspectives and empathise with other people; and critical analysis skills, which enable you to assess information and generate insights.

[00:09:18] By engaging in deep reading, you’re able to slow down, reflect, and engage with ideas in a more meaningful way, which can help you to develop a deeper understanding of the world around you. And, as if that wasn’t enough, deep reading is also an effective way to relax and reduce stress. In fact, one study found that reading reduced stress by a whopping 68%, massively outperforming other relaxing activities like taking a walk.

[00:09:47] So, let’s assume that I’ve sold you on the many benefits of deep reading. You might be wondering if it matters what you read and how you read it. And the answer is, it does and it doesn’t matter. When it comes to the subject matter, it makes little difference if you’re reading fiction or non-fiction, books or magazines, newspapers or someone’s printed and bound college thesis.

[00:10:11] As long as the content requires you to focus and read deeply, so read without distractions, then you can read whatever you want. And to make it easier for you to build your executive attention back up through deep reading, pick something that you’ll actually enjoy. That way, you’ll know that any struggles that you’re experiencing with getting into a deep reading habit are not down to disliking the material. There’s no need to force yourself to read Jane Austen’s back catalogue because they’re considered classics, if what you really want to read is Prince Harry’s memoir. There’s absolutely no judgment from me.

[00:10:47] When it comes to how you read, this is where it really matters for deep reading and executive attention. You need to practice reading offline, ideally with a physical book, a magazine, a newspaper, or a printed document. Now, I’m a bit of a purist and I love old school, hold it in your hands, smell the musky scent of the pages, physical books. So much so, that it’s a bit of a running joke in my circle of friends. Because despite owning a Kindle and an iPad, I still rock up on our holidays with at least three physical books, even when this makes my baggage overweight at check in.

[00:11:23] But I know not everyone is the same, and I do understand the practicality of e-readers like the Kindle, and of course the environmental implications of printing a 100-page document versus reading it on screen. So, I’m going to break down what the research says and you can decide for yourself how you’d like to read.

[00:11:42] When you read offline, you’re present and you’re concentrating. So in many ways it’s easier to engage in deep reading without distraction and you can form richer mental connections with the material. When you read offline, typically your pace of reading slows down, and the delay between your brain quickly decoding words and your slow progress through the page gives you time to process what you’re reading, ultimately making the experience more pleasurable.

[00:12:08] When you read online on a device, the opposite is usually true. You can infinitely scroll a page, there are often lots of hyperlinks, and buttons, and adverts, and pop ups that can take you down a rabbit hole, sometimes just because you accidentally clicked on or tapped on the wrong thing. And the volume of information that you’re presented with at any one time makes you constantly switch your attention, which is of course the exact opposite of focus and concentration.

[00:12:37] In fact, you read completely differently online because you skim read. Instead of reading in a linear way, your eyes rapidly scan the text in either an F or a Z pattern, seeking out keywords and figures. Now, this might allow you to quickly assess information without reading it properly, but it means that you’re missing out on most of the benefits of deep reading that we’ve been talking about.

[00:13:01] In fact, it’s actually detrimental to you because, as a consequence of skim reading, you’ll fail to develop the intellectual and emotional skills that deep reading can help you build up to the same standard. Skim reading is one of the reasons why you have developed cognitive impatience. You no longer have the patience to read longer, denser, or more difficult texts. And, as I said earlier, you’ll never get away from reading completely, so this is really important.

[00:13:30] Every time I start a new freelance gig, I have to review and sign a contract. These contracts are usually over 10 pages, and once I had one that was over 30 pages, but there’s no getting around reading it. I can skim read it, but then I wouldn’t know what I’m signing and agreeing to. And I can tell you that almost without exception, in six years, I’ve had questions or corrections that need to be made before I’m willing to sign every single freelance contract I’ve ever been given.

[00:13:58] So developing the patience to sit and read longer, more dense, and more difficult texts is really, really important. Skim reading also does absolutely nothing to help develop your critical analysis skills, which can lead to an inability to grasp the complexity of thoughts or arguments in more difficult texts, like legal paperwork. Which, in itself, leads to an inability to form your own thoughts in response to what you’ve read.

[00:14:24] Skim reading can also impair your ability to remember information because you’re not really engaging in the deep processing of what you’re reading, and that deep engagement and deep processing is necessary for the information to be encoded into your long-term memory. It’s why you probably think, you read something and then you forget what it was about 10 minutes later.

[00:14:45] And when you persist in training your brain to read in this way and your cognitive impatience grows, you’re more likely to consume information from simpler sources that don’t tax your brain and require that same level of reflection or critical analysis. Which, ultimately, makes you more susceptible to consuming false information.

[00:15:04] Skim reading can limit your ability to engage with complex ideas and perspectives, which may mean that you find it harder to understand, appreciate, or empathise with other people, or to understand their feelings or perspectives. And the experience of skim reading is so much less satisfying and enjoyable, that it might even further discourage you from deep reading, which is of course the exact opposite of what we want.

[00:15:29] Think about it. When you skim read, you’re not trying to enjoy the material, you’re not trying to relax, you’re not trying to remember it, you’re trying to find something as quickly as possible. That’s not enjoyable. So there’s much to be said for reading offline whenever you can.

[00:15:45] Things get a little trickier when it comes to e-readers like the Kindle versus something like a paperback or a hardback, because there’s no clear consensus on which one is better for improving executive attention. There is, however, an impact on the comprehension of what you’re reading due to the physicality of the reading experience with paperbacks versus e-readers.

[00:16:06] Physical books may offer a more immersive and tactile reading experience that can help to engage your senses and create a deeper connection with the material. That sense of touch when you’re reading paperbacks and the spatial arrangement of text on the page helps to anchor you to a time and a space as a reader. And you can physically return to this space on the page whenever you need to, to check or evaluate your understanding, something which is known as recurrence.

[00:16:33] So, typically, your comprehension and retention is higher when you read paperbacks. And this physicality is absent when you use an e-reader because there’s a single page. And because of its screen-based nature, the device encourages you to skim read, which as you now know directly impacts your comprehension.

[00:16:51] There have been several studies in which students have been tasked with reading stories or information in print and using an e-reader like the Kindle. And each time those students reading in print are much better able to recall the details, reconstruct story plots chronologically, or otherwise demonstrate their comprehension and understanding of what they have read, than those students who read on an e-reader.

[00:17:15] So, on balance, I would and I still do recommend reading offline in print, whenever that’s an option. But if you’re able to use an e-reader like the Kindle and engage in deep reading, which means focused reading with no distractions from hyperlinks, or the built in dictionaries, or annotation tools, then it’s a strong second contender and definitely better than not reading at all.

[00:17:38] And the key to developing that capacity for focus and deep reading is to start small. So, basically, don’t try to do what I did initially and think you’ll be able to read a whole book in a weekend like you used to. Like most things in digital wellness, and all things related to habit, it takes time.

[00:17:56] Start out by committing to reading 5-10 pages a day. It might not sound like a lot, but it’s surprisingly hard when your executive attention is depleted. Try to do it at the same time each day by building it into your routine, and make sure that you put your phone and any other digital devices out of sight so that you’re not tempted to distract yourself. Unless, of course, you’re reading on a Kindle.

[00:18:20] You could try reading over coffee in the morning instead of reading emails or scrolling Instagram. Or try reading before bed, which has the added bonus of encouraging you to step away from your devices before going to sleep, reducing your exposure to blue light, which can affect your melatonin levels and make it harder for you to fall and stay asleep.

[00:18:39] I recommend timing how long it takes you to read those 10 pages. And you should notice that over time you start to get faster, which then opens you up to the possibility of reading more pages in the same amount of time. And I’m not saying this to make you compete with yourself to see how many pages you can read quickly, or even to encourage you to skim read to get through more pages faster. I’m saying it because the ability to get through more pages in the same amount of time indicates an improvement in your executive attention.

[00:19:09] You’re staying more focused, you’re interrupting yourself less, you’re ignoring distractions or distracting thoughts, and as a result your capacity for concentration is only getting better. Which, ultimately, means that you’ll start to find it easier to focus on complex or important tasks in other areas of your personal and professional life. I know that when I started out, 10 pages was a struggle. I slowly built that up to 20 pages, so double what I had started with, and I’m now on 30 pages.

[00:19:38] But I know that if I had started out with trying to read 30 pages, I would have been sat there all damn day, or given up completely. So, baby steps are the key here. Stick with it for two months, and even at 10 pages a day, that means you’ll have read two books of around 300 pages each after 60 days. And as your ability to deep read grows, so too will your capacity for focus and attention.

[00:20:04] That’s it for today’s episode, I hope you’ve enjoyed it. And if you’ve been struggling to read, whether for pleasure or professional reasons, then hopefully I’ve helped you to understand why that’s happening and how you can restore your executive attention through cultivating your ability to engage in deep reading.

[00:20:22] You can find the show notes for today’s episode over on my website at thedigitaldietcoach.com/008. And, as always, if you do decide to take on a deep reading challenge, then I’d love to hear how you got on. Let me know what you’re reading because, as a bookworm, I’m always interested in recommendations. And also let me know whether you’re going old school with a paperback or trialling deep reading with an e-reader like the Kindle.

[00:20:49] You can either leave a comment on your social media platform of choice, all my handles can be found on the show notes page so that you can tag me and I will see it. Or you can email me directly at podcast@thedigitaldietcoach.com, and I promise to respond to every single message. I know you’re busy and your time is incredibly valuable. So, as always, I thank you for choosing to spend a little of your day with me, and I’ll see you next time.

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Marisha Pink

Meet Marisha

Marisha Pink is a Certified Digital Wellness Coach who is on a mission to empower women everywhere to live life more intentionally in an age of digital distractions. She helps women create healthier digital habits that better balance the technology in their lives, so that they can take back control of their time, reclaim their happiness, and live their best lives offline.

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