Is reading the ultimate tool for mental sharpness?

I stumbled upon this video of Karlina Supelli, an Indonesian philosopher, astronomer, and public intellectual, where she discussed the value of reading. In the video, she said that while films and social media provide visual and auditory stimulation, they do not typically require the same level of intellectual engagement or provoke a deep internal dialogue as reading a well-composed book does. Therefore, she firmly believes that the habit of reading books should not be replaced by modern digital distractions, as it plays a crucial role in developing and maintaining a sharp and agile mind.

If you knew me IRL, I’m probably the most bookish person you know. Not exactly a book snob, but I do love books and I love reading.

If you knew me IRL, you’d also probably say it is not too far-fetched to call me chronic intellectual masturbator.

But, I half-disagree with her take in the clip.

I’ll first explain how I disagree, then in what ways I agree with it, and finally, how I think we could approach this topic.

Why I disagree

The key words here are “engaging” vs “stimulating”.

You can very much stimulate yourself with text, audio, video, and other sensory modalities and still not engage with any of them.

Passively reading is not better than passively watching a movie, or passively scrolling on social media timeline. Passively reading a book sits at the same level of usefulness as mindlessly scrolling on Instagram Reels. The constant stimulation, distraction, and cheap novelty provided by social media are nice when your brain is sort of fried at the end of your day but you still want some dopamine hit.

What does “passively consuming” means? Here are two possible meanings:

  1. accepting the idea/data/narrative as is

  2. not actually engaging/dialoguing with what you are perceiving and experiencing

Is it easier to do these two things and detach your brain when consuming audio/video content? Sure, but anything that engages you to start a dialogue in your mind will sharpen your thinking. Everything is a potential fodder.

It’s less about the format or the content than what you decide to do with it.

We should also probably try to define what ‘better’ means, and compared to what. But let’s not go there today. Is reading fictional smut “better” than watching a 60-second cooking video? Is reading propagandic Twitter thread “better” than binging a crime series on Netflix?

Sometimes, but not always.

I’d rather have a dialogue with myself about some “cringe” Tiktok videos, than plow through a badly written books. It’s less about what the thing is about than what you decide to do with it.

We all can name a few well-written movies out there with complex characters and depth, talking about issues important to us. We would see the buzz when such shows appear because they’re different. They struck a chord. And often, they make us think or see things a little differently. A recent example is the movie, Don’t Look Up.

OK, so far I think I have said nothing surprising.

In what ways do I agree

I do agree with her that we should still invest our time and attention and not let our reading muscle atrophy. Be it tweets, captions, articles, essays, and books. But we just don’t read.

That’s not completely our fault because our biology is more evolved to engage with ideas conveyed through audio. Oral culture preceeds literal culture. Reading is a relatively new skill that human have evolved to adapt to. We are visual creatures. We adapted parts of our visual cortex to reading.

I think at this point, you’d agree that text is not superior to audio or video. Text is just one form of communication. If anything, text is actually inferior in getting ideas through to people. People don’t read. It takes effort. Reading is like hitting the mental gym. Training is painful but you will grow mass and agility.

If we go back to the two aspects of passive consumption above, text does make it easier for us to challenge things compared to other formats. Text puts some distance between you and an idea the way that audio-video don’t. Text is mostly conscious, explicit, and “cold”. // I need to dig out some references here but this is something discussed in Walter Ong’s books

It is easier to accept ideas when it’s presented in audio-video format. This is why it’s also easier to brainwash people through audio and video compared to through text. The more senses are involved, the more subliminal it can get.

Text in general takes more effort to discover and longer to consume and process. While there are many text-based recommendation timelines such as Twitter, Substack, and Medium, this is still a very niche segment (of us, wordcels).

Can I have your attention please?

Do you realise the biggest way social media and TV hurt critical thinking? It lies in the speed of which they are dispensed.

With algorithm-driven media consumption, you have less time to pause, reflect, revisit, and digest what was consumed when system so readily presents you with the next item in the queue. At least, you feel like you don’t have the time to slow down. You’re hooked.

I become less likely to sit with an idea, revisit a note, reflect on a book or podcast or whatever, because there are infinite options of new exciting things sitting there (in chronological order) ready for me to fiddle my brain with next. These social media platforms are also designed to maximise short-term engagement and payoffs.

So, why pause? More, faster, easier. We gorge on.

This is the default situation we all face right now. And inertia is hard to break and momentum is hard to maintain.

So, what to consume? In what formats?

So far, we have covered three things:

  1. Engagement over stimulation
  2. Substance over formats

  3. Who’s profitting off your arrested attention? What are you losing from it?

Formats matter less than how much intellectual engagement you are willing to muster. Remember you have an active subscription to a free mental gym that you can train in anytime.

Know that everything you pay attention to will shape your perception of your reality. Nothing goes to waste like every drip of water on a rock.

I’d like to suggest this mode of operation: Follow your curiosity, curate mindfully, consume critically. And even better: produce carefreely and prolifically.

It’s indeed hard work. So even if you just do it for 20% of your total time as a consumer, you’ll be better off than not doing it at all.

So, how do we prevent our thinking from becoming dull?

Fortunately, she shared this other insight. The keyword this time is: dialogue.

What’s naturally a dialogue? Conversations.

Have real conversations with real people about what you read, what you saw, what you heard. Go talk about them.

Don’t have other people within reach? No excuse. Writing, and sometimes publishing, is another way you could ignite this process. Take notes, revisit them, explore your own thinking on the topic/issue.

A conversation will usually have less of a strict constraint of length and attention span compared to other media. It’s easier to secure someone’s attention in a conversation compared to getting people to finish reading your essay, watching your video, or listening to your podcast.

Engaging in a dialogue forces you to formulate and iterate on your own thoughts. And heck, engaging in a dialogue with people is much easier than shooting a video essay. Yes it doesn’t scale, but you can’t scale something when all you have is nothing.

And remember to have a dialogue, not a monologue. Dialogue means thinking, talking, and listening.

The main constraints to human connection are indeed our attention, patience, and curiosity. A.k.a. the formula for empathy.

Final thoughts

Look, I’m sure that a seasoned and reknowned philosopher like Bu Karlina has well calibrated instinct against careless generalisations (“books” and “videos”). I know she absolutely has a more nuanced thought than what a 30 second clip could capture and convey.

And that is perhaps exactly the more precise critique to land here regarding the way social media and other forms of modern entertainment are designed and optimised for:

  1. It rewards the simplification of ideas,
  2. it is constrained to the length of attention/patience span, and

  3. it profits off the outrage of our passionate disagreements and snap tribalism caused by our lack of practice in nuanced thinking.

It’s fair to say that rather than disagreeing, I’m probably only unpacking her idea deeper in text here, and therefore proving her point.

Lastly, if anyone is interested in exploring the topic of deep reading, check out the work of Maryanne Wolf and Naomi Baron.

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