Why You Should Read Outside of Your Comfort Zone


Research shows that as people age, they often become less “open to new experiences.” We can become creatures of habit, and stop trying new things. It turns out, this is really bad for learning, and even for enjoyment.

Personality is defined as your consistent attitudes and behaviors—how you typically go about doing things. For most people, their personality becomes increasingly repetitious, wherein their future can be easily predicted by looking at their past. The philosopher and psychologist William James believed that a person’s personality basically became fully formed and fixed by age thirty, because thereafter a person’s life often becomes highly routine and predictable.

Personality is another word for “comfort zone.” By trying new things, you’ll experience new emotions and open new sides of yourself. Your subconscious wants you to stay in your comfort zone. Your brain is designed to keep you in predictable situations where you can easily predict what will happen. Unfortunately, from a learning perspective, this can be very bad for your brain.

“Interleaving” is a process where you mix, or interleave, multiple subjects or topics while you study in order to improve your learning. This is different from “Blocked practice,” where you studying one topic very thoroughly before moving to another topic.

Interleaving is more effective than blocked practice for developing the skills of categorization and problem solving. Interleaving also leads to better long-term retention and improved ability to transfer learned knowledge. In other words, by switching topics and scenarios regularly while you learn, you will better understand, remember, and utilize what you learn.

Cognitive psychologists believe that interleaving improves the brain’s ability to differentiate, or discriminate, between concepts and strengthens memory associations. By switching topics, you’re forced to think hard to remember what you were previously studying. Thus, by switching topics, you strengthen your memory retrieval, which is crucial to memory and learning.

Here’s how to apply it to reading:

“A good shock often helps the brain that has been atrophied by habit.”—Napoleon Hill

The following are a few ways I’ve applied these ideas, which have helped me learn and remember more from what I read.

  • Rather than listening to audiobooks from start to finish, as I usually do, for a while, I’d listen to three different books at the same time. After 30-60 minutes of a particular book, I’d switch books, and continue doing that in a rotating manner through all three books. Every time I’d switch to a new book, I felt like my brain was working extra hard to remember the details from the previous session. The ideas from the different books began to blend together, allowing my creative thinking to improve.
  • A simpler application of “interleaving” is the simple switch of genre for a while. As a psychologist, I often study more scientific non-fiction. However, for the past six months, I’ve spent far more of my time reading lengthy biographies of all sorts of people, from religious leaders to athletes to musicians to politicians (I’m currently listening to a book on Abraham Lincoln’s depression). By switching genres for an extended period of time (six months), I’ve found a new love for learning and reading. I’m seeing so many different applications to the science I typically study.
  • As people age, they become increasingly less open to new experiences. They become creates of a narrow group of habits. Our brains form the strongest memories (i.e., learning) when we are engaged and experiencing novelty. When we connect new ideas into our network of memories.

If you want to get more out of your reading, here are a few possible ideas to apply the science of learning:

  • Rotate a few books rather than completing them one-at-a-time
  • Switch genres for a few months
  • Rotate a few books while also rotating the formats of those books (e.g., switch back-and-forth between an audiobook of one genre and a hardcover from a different genre)
  • Switch formats of reading for a few months (e.g., if you primarily listen to audiobooks, try switching to reading for a few a months)
  • If you want to learn more and continue evolving as a person, then mix up your methods. Quit being so predictable. Try new things! Your brain will change and your memory will expand.

Featured image: @djmon1que via Twenty20


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