Spell It: Why People Stopped Reading Books During the Peak of the COVID-19 Pandemic

If this happened to you, you were not alone. For people used to getting away with a favorite novel, the inability to read was a real loss.

According to a May 2020 report published on the American news site Vox, neuroscientists believe this happened because many of us lived in a state of constant anxiety, especially those who were affected or had seen family members affected by COVID-19. In the first year of the pandemic, the global prevalence of anxiety and depression increased by 25%, according to a scientific note published by the World Health Organization (WHO).

The reading, in the end, took more effort than we were willing to give it. The process of reading involves the frontal lobe of the brain, causing people to suspend reality for a while and engage the imagination in an interesting narrative. It’s different from watching TV, which is more stimulus-driven – reading is more interactive and requires you to participate by using your imagination.

But at the height of the pandemic, when uncertainty reigned and even the most innocuous things, like doorknobs or elevator buttons, became suspicious, people even tried to avoid socializing with others. At the time, no one knew when the pandemic would end, if they would catch the virus, or even what it was really about. Reading, then, no longer brought a sense of relief or certainty. Instead, it took the time our anxious brains needed to search for normalcy.

Another factor that played into the collapse of our book is that we just didn’t have the energy to pay attention to it. In the digital age, our attention span is a finite resource. According to a report by US-based digital media website Refinery29, investing emotional energy in reading was much harder than watching funny TikToks, re-watching TV shows, or simply scrolling through Twitter. The perceived energy, or cognitive load that we believe goes into reading, is far more important than easier options like scrolling through social media for a brief respite.

Additionally, the often self-imposed idea that we should read has added to the pressure we put on ourselves to focus. In the end, it was just easier not to lift a book.

About Marcia G. Hussain

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