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Reading creates better focus and empathy

Recently I had a lot of time to fill at Guangzhou airport in China, en-route to London: the perfect opportunity to catch up on reading. I'm currently pondering my way through Stolen Focus by Johann Hari and am finding much food for thought. Chapter four in particular really struck a chord with me. It’s titled The Collapse of Sustained Reading and it reminded me why choosing a literature-rich education for our children is a wise move on many levels.


He sites a number of statistics but perhaps the most alarming was that by 2017, the average American spent 17 minutes a day reading and 5.4 hours on their phone. This is a problem for sure and the trend is downhill. He writes:


“For many of us, reading a book is one of the deepest forms of focus we experience – you dedicate many hours of your life, coolly, calmly, to one topic, and allow it to marinate in your mind. This is the medium through which most of the deepest advances in human thought over the past 400 years have been figured out and explained. And that experience is now in freefall.”


This rang true for me. Getting absorbed in a good book is deeply focusing. Give me the right book and no responsibility and I can sit for hours. This sort of focus is necessary for deep thinking, careful reflection and complex problem-solving. Reading focuses our brain on one thought at a time in a way that reading on a screen (typically with plenty of distractions competing for our attention) never can. Reading fiction in particular provides the raw material that our imagination can go to work on, and in the process, it can also develop empathy. He explains:


“When you’re reading a novel, you are immersing yourself in what it’s like to be inside another person’s head. You are simulating a social situation. You are imagining other people and their experiences in a deep and complex way. … Perhaps fiction is a kind of empathy gym, boosting your ability to empathise with other people – which is one of the most rich and precious forms of focus we have.”


The author interviewed some researchers who tested this hypothesis and what they found was notable: “The more novels you read, the better you were at reading other people’s emotions.”  Time spent internally simulating some one else’s experience through imagination translated into an improved ability to understand people off the page.



So let this be a small encouragement today that living a life that is full of focused reading is good for the brain, and reading novels is especially good for our heart’s capacity to relate well with the world around us. Reading deeply is by nature formative for our very being. I think Charlotte Mason intuitively understood this when she developed her learning method which rests on a belief that ‘education is the science of relations.’ She prioritised reading living books for a variety of reasons and there is a host of scientific research backing her up. So this week as you read with your children or see them engrossed in a good book, take a moment to smile. Those moments are forming life-long readers who can pay attention and imagine well - and the world needs more people like that.


Stolen Focus – Why You Can’t Pay Attention by Johann Hari is available on Amazon and other bookstores.

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