Technology and The Reading Brain

I had one of those NPR “driveway” moments this afternoon. WBUR’s always engaging Here and Now did a piece with cognitive neuroscientist Maryanne Wolf about how technology is changing our brains. Check out “Is Online Skimming Hurting Reading Comprehension?”

The short answer is yes. And Wolf’s most compelling argument was less scientific than experiential–she tried it on herself. She went back to read a book she had loved when she was younger, The Glass Bead Game. Reading with her brain version 2.0, she found it hard to slow down and be able to enjoy the complexity of language and concepts. I think this is an experience many of us identify with. (Frankly, I’m happy to know that’s what’s going on–and that it’s not a first peek at Alzheimer’s.)

The good news is that adult readers can get it back–Wolf did as she stuck with the Hesse. The bad news is that children who never learn the cognitive skill of “deep reading” will not pick it up naturally. As she explains, that skill takes years to learn, though once we have it we are able process complexity in milliseconds.

Today’s pivot generation grew up with the skill of deep reading but university instructors report that students complain about older texts that they are asked to read–not that it is intellectually too difficult but that they resent the time they have to invest. This has some interesting–and I’ll say scary–implications for a life lived and understood deeply, for “connecting to one’s own best thoughts.”

Wolf apparently has a new book coming on the digital brain at some point. I hope it’s ours. But in the meantime she wrote a very good book on the reading brain already: Proust and the Squid: The Story of Science and the Reading Brain. That one’s available right now if this topic intrigues you.

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