Slow Down, Reader

In a new book, Maryanne Wolf argues that our brains are changing with all this screen reading, but that it’s not too late to fix the damage
a man holding a book looking at an image of a cloud in the form of a brain
“How we read and what we read reflects how we think, and the quality and nature of our thought,” said Maryanne Wolf. Photo: Ingimage
August 6, 2018

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Maryanne Wolf needed to test a hypothesis. A longtime researcher on how reading on screens changes the brain—and not for the better—she was coming to suspect that what she’d been warning others about had happened to her. Her test was simple: reread Hermann Hesse’s Magister Ludi.

She had read it when she was young and loved it, and was gleefully looking forward to it. Until, that is, she actually sat down and opened the book. Granted, it’s a dense, complex novel, but still, reading it was “the literary equivalent of a punch to the cortex,” she reports in her new book, Reader, Come Home: The Reading Brain in a Digital World (HarperCollins).

Scanning all those emails and browsing all those articles online had indeed taken a toll. She simply couldn’t sustain what she calls deep reading. “It was as if someone had had poured thick molasses over my brain whenever I picked Magister Ludi up to read,” she writes.

It was an object lesson for her that no one is immune to the downsides of reading on screens. “I believe that the reading brain is changing imperceptibly,” she said. “The glut of information that we are all bombarded with is actually changing how we read. This skimming, browsing, word-spotting way of reading on digital screens is bleeding over to all of what we are reading, which has truly potentially pernicious effects on the quality of thought that we are using while we read.”

Wolf, a longtime faculty member at Tufts and most recently the John DiBiaggio Professor of Citizenship and Public Service, has for many years studied what happens when we learn to read. An expert on dyslexia, she also wrote Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain (HarperCollins, 2007), which has been translated into fourteen languages. She’s also spent the last decade researching and writing about the potential effects of digital reading.

“If we in the twenty-first century are to preserve a vital collective conscience, we must ensure that all members of our society are able to read and think both deeply and well,” said Maryanne Wolf. Photo: Rod SearceyIn her new book, written as a series of letters, she lays out what happens in the brain as we read, details what she calls deep reading, and proposes ideas for how to raise children as readers in this digital age. She also issues a larger warning for us all: shallow reading is damaging our democracy.

First, she points out it’s important to remember that writing and reading are very recent developments for humans—less than 6,000 years ago, a blink of the eye in evolutionary terms. Brain structures for reading reflect the requirements of writing systems—different circuits are used for, say, Chinese, English, and Italian. And just as writing systems influence the reading circuits in the brain, so too will the characteristics of the medium in which you are reading, Wolf said.

For most of us, that means reading many hours a day on a screen, which often involves processing a lot of information quickly, scanning text, and switching tasks frequently. Doing that isn’t just building bad reading habits, but affecting our brain circuitry about how we read—and think. “How we read and what we read reflects how we think, and the quality and nature of our thought,” she said.

What can we do about it? Three weeks after her initial experiment with Magister Ludi (more commonly translated as The Glass Bead Game), Wolf sat down again to read the book, slowly and intentionally, and for pleasure. She started to retrain herself to be immersed in the book. “During the process, my world slowed down—just a little—as I recovered my lost way of reading,” she writes. She “came home.”

Make time for deep reading, she suggests, which allows for critical analysis, the ability to take on alternative perspectives of others, and the lessons of empathy that grow there. It is “a sanctuary, a place where we can become immersed, and through that immersion, transcend our daily lives,” she said. “How very sad it would be if we lost that very special holding place for the quieting of our thoughts.”

How to Help Children be Biliterate

It’s a start toward becoming what Wolf calls a “biliterate reading brain,” capable of deeper, more sustained reading across any medium. “But not right away—it’s vitally important to think about how we teach our children these skills,” she said. In her book, she proposes a developmental approach for teaching biliteracy to children.

For children up to age two, she recommends keeping the screens to a minimum, and focusing on printed books a long while. For ages two to five, “it should be like a teddy bear that is available, but not by any means used as either a reward or something that is forbidden,” she said. They should certainly be familiar with it, but not something they require for continuous stimulation. From ages five to around ten, she advocates parallel tracks for learning to read with print and the learning of digital skills like coding on screens, citing the work of Tufts colleague Marina Bers.

That said, there is no one approach that fits every child, Wolf said, for “there is always an individual element in everything that we do in science and in education. First and foremost, ‘Know thy child.'” Some youngsters with dyslexia, for example, are often going to progress more easily with screens versus print, she said.

Wolf saves her most trenchant criticism of the digital reading brain for its effects not on individual learning, but on society at large. “The last thing I ever thought was that I as a cognitive neuroscientist would come to the conclusion that this work is imperative for society to understand for the sake of democracy,” she said. “How we read has changed to such a degree that it encourages only the most superficial thought—and worse, the most superficial sources of information.”

The complexity of argument and thought is being lost, “so that the end of deep reading—which is critical analysis, empathy, and ultimately a contemplative look at the truth—doesn’t happen.” The result in the past, she added, has been demagoguery. “If we in the twenty-first century are to preserve a vital collective conscience, we must ensure that all members of our society are able to read and think both deeply and well.”

Maryanne Wolf reads and discusses Reader, Come Home at Harvard Book Store in Cambridge, Massachusetts, on August 8 at 7 p.m.

Taylor McNeil can be reached at taylor.mcneil@tufts.edu.

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