Dear reader

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

New Zealand Listener - - CONTENTS - By Sally Blun­dell

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.

“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.

“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.”

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?”

“[Peo­ple] 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.”


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

Fic­tion is three times more pop­u­lar with book groups than non­fic­tion, but last year’s most re­quested ti­tle was Lance O’Sul­li­van’s The Good Doctor.

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.”


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

“You can cruise on YouTube or on Google go­ing ‘yuck’ and ‘wow’, but you’re not ac­tu­ally mak­ing sense of things.”

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.”

It is prob­lem­atic when stu­dents avoid tood­ense lit­er­a­ture. “It is not that I want ev­ery­one to read Ge­orge Eliot, but I don’t want them not to be able to.”

Maryanne Wolf: “How we read is in­flu­enc­ing what we read.”

Su­san Green­field: in­for­ma­tion is not knowl­edge.

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