Shelf Awareness of 10 April reports on concerns among researchers:

Cognitive neuroscientists are warning that humans “seem to be developing digital brains with new circuits for skimming through the torrent of information online,” the Washington Post reported, adding that this “alternative way of reading is competing with traditional deep reading circuitry developed over several millennia.”

“I worry that the superficial way we read during the day is affecting us when we have to read with more in-depth processing,” said Maryanne Wolf, a Tufts University cognitive neuroscientist and the author of Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain.

Researchers are recommending closer study of the differences between text and screen reading and suggest “there are advantages to both ways of reading. There is potential for a bi-literate brain,” the Post wrote.

“We can’t turn back,” Wolf observed. ‘We should be simultaneously reading to children from books, giving them print, helping them learn this slower mode, and at the same time steadily increasing their immersion into the technological, digital age. It’s both. We have to ask the question: What do we want to preserve?”

Of course this is just The Washington Post version of the story, but it all seems pretty silly and non-scientific: but nevertheless the article appears to be getting a whole lot of attention. Professor Wolf implies that there is a special “superficial way we read during the day”. This is absurd. Why just during the day? Is it really impossible to read non-superficially during daylight hours? How does she know? Certainly the solution to the “problem” is not to make everyone read everything they see on the web slowly and carefully. Much of the stuff we get exposed to deserves no more than a cursory glance. We are offered such a huge variety of stuff now that the only way to cope (other than ignoring it entirely) is to scan quickly and then read more carefully those items which seem likely to be interesting. We never had to do this before — well maybe you could say people who used to feel compelled to read every page of the newspaper did something similar, but I’m skeptical about the claim that the brain is being changed in ways which make it harder for people to read novels! You might as well claim that people who watch television are unable to spend more than a few seconds looking at a more serious image like a painting in a museum because it doesn’t move. We all know that people can do both, though we also know there are people who don’t have any patience at all. At the same time we should all relax and accept that your scanning emails without reading every word has no bearing on how you behave when you sit down with War and Peace. Of course you’ll find people who find it hard to concentrate on reading a long book — but time travel back fifty years and, surprise, surprise, you’ll find lots of people having trouble concentrating on reading a long book. I rather suspect the proportions of such people remain fairly stable over the generations.

Wired has come out with what looks like a balanced treatment of the article and the issues it raises, but if you put any weight on the odd islands of evidence which they reference, your foot goes right through. The long and the short of it is nobody knows whether it’s “better” to read on paper than on a screen. I am pretty certain that in the long run, when we look back on all this, it’ll all seem pretty stupid: people will read stuff this way and they’ll read stuff that way.  The Digital Reader has a typically sane response to the same Washington Post article.

 We’ve heard all this before. Every middle-aged generation goes on about how today’s kids can’t/won’t/never will do this or that valuable thing which they and their middle-aged compeers had to learn to do when they were young. When I was a teenager the concern was we’d all be deaf from listening to rock ‘n’ roll. If our brains have adapted at all to reading (and I bet it’s been far too short a time for any reading-specific mutations to have taken place in the brain) I don’t think a little scanning is going to lead to some new adaptation. Rather than losing the ability to read, I suspect that some people are finding they have lost the time to read. When they eventually find they do have the time, they’ll discover that they have the tools, totally intact.

The Millions brings us a piece by Cody Delistraty suggesting that reading is good for you in the very direct way of making beneficial neuronal changes in your brain. Neuronal pathways can no doubt be established in the brain, but I’m not sure that an effect measured five days after the event can be allowed to count as proving the brain has been “permanently rewired”.  We should not be surprised that the brain effects of reading can be measured. We all sense that reading good books is good for us. Richard Rorty claimed “the novel is the genre which gives us most help in grasping the variety of human life and the contingency of our own moral vocabulary”. Elsewhere he referred to the novel as “the characteristic genre of democracy, the genre most closely associated with the struggle for freedom and equality”  Other philosophers, notably Martha Nussbaum, have joined him in insisting on the ethical value of fiction reading. I think we all feel reinforced in the goodness of our lives (to whatever extent our lives can be called good!) by reading about Dorothea Brooke in Middlemarch. (But why always Dorothea Brooke, though, when she spends almost all the book as Dorothea Casaubon?) Reading the book may not make us try to give large chunks of our wealth away, but certainly makes us wish we were better people.

I’m not sure whether this piece from The Atlantic about note-taking has any bearing on the question of digital reading as against hard copy reading, but I can affirm that I certainly find the best way to learn/really know a poem is to write it out by hand. Maybe it has something to do with the speed at which we write as against type (though my hunt-and-peck is quite possibly slower than longhand). Perhaps the effect (if it’s really real) has to do with something like mirror neurons; the process of focussing on each word giving the neuronal pathway time to consolidate, or reactivating a pathway already there.

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