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How reading in a digital world affects your brain

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Our brain development is being put at risk by the sheer volume of reading we are doing online and on digital devices. 

Your brain has been in training for 6000 years to read this article. It was then, about six millennia ago, reports neuroscientist Maryanne Wolf, that the acquisition of literacy demanded the development of new brain circuitry. Since then, that new wiring has evolved from being able to perform simple decoding steps, such as being able to count goats in a herd, into the present sophisticated reading brain.

As a species, we are not natural-born readers. As Wolf noted in her 2007 book Proust and the Squid, the act of learning to read “added an entirely new circuit to our hominid brain’s repertoire. The long developmental process of learning to read deeply, and well, changed the very structure of that circuit’s connections, which rewired the brain, which transformed the nature of human thought.”

Now these “deep-reading” processes – the ability to apply critical analysis, empathy and imagination, to discern truth, gauge inference and appreciate beauty – are under threat. As Wolf writes in her evocatively titled new book Reader, Come Home: The Reading Brain in a Digital World, the greatest explosion of creativity, invention and discovery in our history, our almost complete transition to a digital culture, is changing the way we absorb and retain information in ways we never imagined.

Macro alias: ModuleRenderer

“When we are reading in print, we have time to allocate to those kinds of cognitive processes,” she tells the Listener from her office at the University of California, Los Angeles, where she is a visiting professor. “By and large, reading on a screen encourages multitasking, a different form of attention, a different speed of processing.”

And increasingly, she says, research shows our habitual browsing of the internet, or flicking from email to text to Twitter feed, is affecting how we read. Wolf cites a 2014 study led by reading researcher Anne Mangen from the University of Stavanger, Norway, in which 50 graduate students read a 28-page story. Half of the students read the story on a Kindle, the other half read the same story in paperback. They were then tested for different measures including emotional response, reading time and text comprehension. The researchers found no significant differences between the paperback and Kindle readers, save one: people who read on paper were nearly twice as good at putting 14 plot events in the right order.

Worryingly, Wolf points to a more recent study that found students who read on digital media don’t comprehend as well, don’t sequence details as well and don’t recall the plot as well as those reading the same material in print. According to Mangen collaborators Karin Littau and Andrew Piper, the sense of touch made possible with a printed book also gives a kind of geometry to words, a spatial “thereness” to the text that adds to the comprehension and memory of the written word.

A European research network studying the effects of digital text reading said the amount of time spent reading long-form texts is in decline, and “due to digitisation, reading is becoming more intermittent and fragmented”. Ziming Liu, professor of library and information science at San José State University, was the first to identify a “new norm” in reading – on screen, people tend to scan, zero in on keywords and read in a less linear fashion. Many of us reading digital media now use an F- or Z-shaped pattern in which we read the first line then word-spot through the rest of a text.

This has its place. But at risk, warns Wolf, is our aptitude for “deep reading” – the ability to discern truth, apply critical analysis, gauge inference, develop empathy, appreciate beauty and go beyond “our present glut of information” to reach the knowledge and wisdom necessary to sustain a good society.

In the seven years it took her to write Proust and the Squid, reading itself changed. When she finished, she writes, “I lifted my head to look about me and felt as if I were Rip Van Winkle … our entire literacy-based culture had begun its transformation into a very different, digitally based culture.”

The critical question, says Wolf, is whether the increasing reliance of our youth on digital media proves a threat to the young brain’s building of its own foundation of knowledge, and the child’s desire to think and imagine for him- or herself. “Or will these new technologies provide the best, most complete bridge yet to ever more sophisticated forms of cognition and imagination?”

Maryanne Wolf: “How we read is influencing what we read.” Photo/Getty Images

Google man’s belief in books

Many are worried. Almost a decade ago, Eric Schmidt, former chief executive of Google, raised the alarm that the “overwhelming rapidity of information” is affecting deeper thinking: “I still believe that sitting down and reading a book is the best way to really learn something. And I worry that we’re losing that.”

In Reader, Come Home, Wolf explains her “digital chain hypothesis”, whereby how we are being asked to read is influencing how we read, how we read is influencing what we read, what we read is now influencing what is written and what publishers are asking of their authors, namely, briefer text, less-dense sentences and a more reduced syntactic load on the reader. The ramifications of this are serious. Writing in the Guardian, Wolf says the subtle atrophy of critical analysis and empathy “affects our ability to navigate a constant bombardment of information. It incentivises a retreat to the most familiar silos of unchecked information, which require and receive no analysis, leaving us susceptible to false information and demagoguery.”

And if people are skim, skim, skimming, she tells the Listener, “and not going deeper to understand the complexity of issues, they will be far more attracted to false news or worse. The US is suffering this. They will be more susceptible to people who give false promises and false fears. That is my worry as a reading researcher and as a citizen.”

This view was backed up by neuroscientist Susan Greenfield from Oxford University, who reminds us that endless, unprocessed information isn’t knowledge. “Of course, you can be bombarded with endless information, endless facts,” she told Australia’s ABC, “but if you can’t make sense of them, one fact is the same as any other fact. You can cruise on YouTube or on Google going ‘yuck’ and ‘wow’, but you’re not actually making sense of things.”

It is true in one sense that we are reading like never before. Toddlers play with laptops, children communicate on cellphones, teens post Twitter and Facebook updates, adults read e-books, emails and news feeds. In this digital space, however, we read differently. We skim, we scroll, we hover over flashing ads, we click our way through rabbit holes of hyperlinks, we make myriad decisions – agree or don’t agree, like or don’t like, accept or don’t accept – all demanding immediate attention.

But after a day flicking through texts, scrolling through emails and scanning through news feeds, settling down to the unbroken text of a book, a report or a wordy contract, our brain recoils. Our eyes wander, our attention fractures, sentences slip, meaning slides. Wolf experienced this when she picked up an old but difficult book she had previously enjoyed. “I was unable to slow myself down,” she says. “It took me two weeks to finish.”

Susan Greenfield: information is not knowledge. Photo/Alamy

Reading like there’s no tomorrow

So, are New Zealanders forgetting how to read? A 2014-15 OECD study of adult skills in 32 countries found the number of Kiwis in the top two levels of literacy proficiency was above average, but this left about 43% of 16- to 65-year-olds functioning below level 3 – that is, able to read simple text, to paraphrase and understand basic concepts, but struggling to identify irrelevant text or infer meaning from large chunks of information. In other words, they can get by, just.

According to a Book Council survey done this year, 442,000 Kiwi adults had not read a book in the previous 12 months. “Our study tells us that there is a group of New Zealanders who are avid readers,” says council chief executive Jo Cribb. “They’re enjoying more New Zealand fiction, non-fiction and poetry than ever, but there is a large number of us who didn’t pick up a book at all, or read fewer than three in the past year. Watching television and browsing the internet are our leisure activities of choice.”

Wolf stresses she is not taking a stand against digital media. After all, when it comes to reading, she argues, we get out largely what we put in – the more we skim, the more we’re likely to keep skimming; the more we plunge into a text, the more we’re likely to keep plunging. Emails, texts and tweets can usually be understood with a quick scan and students who regularly do research online have been found to be better at ignoring irrelevant information than those who use the internet mostly to send emails, chat and blog. Nor is there any doubt that printed books and reports can be skimmed as much as any online communication.

But there is concern, she says, that digital media and the sheer volume of online information and communication invite the fast and shallow read. The result, she writes, is more and more young people not reading other than what is required, “and often not even that: ‘tl; dr’ (too long; didn’t read)”.

Of course, we want our children to be digitally aware citizens of the 21st century, “but at the same time not lose the sophisticated cognitive processes that we spent a couple of centuries developing. It is problematic when our students of literature are avoiding 19th- and early 20th-century literature because they are too dense. It is not that I want everyone to read George Eliot, but I don’t want them not to be able to.”

To be able to apply the same in-depth close-reading processes to any medium, she says, we need to cultivate a “bi-literate” reading brain capable of the deepest forms of thought in either digital or traditional format. In order for this to happen, she is calling for a pause, time out to consider what we are gaining and what we are losing when we read on different media, and how we can preserve and expand our reading capabilities to avoid the catastrophe, she says, “of children able to read and decode but who are not reading with critical analysis, with all the implications for background knowledge, inference deduction, empathy and the ability to understand perspectives that are different from our own.

“We should be thinking about our own thinking, we should be thinking about our own reading.”

This article was first published in the October 13, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.