Professor Maryanne Wolf has called for the development of “a bi-literate reading brain capable of the deepest thought in either digital or traditional mediums.”
Professor Maryanne Wolf has called for the development of “a bi-literate reading brain capable of the deepest thought in either digital or traditional mediums.”
Image: 123RF / Iryna Markova

Over the years there has been plenty of research into the effects of our increasingly touch-screen dominated world into what our phones and Ipads and computer screens are doing to us. But what if our screens and devices aren’t just increasing our risks of early blindness and being blackmailed by hackers? What if they are actually changing the circuits in our brains developed over 6,000 years ago for reading to the point where they may have knock-on consequences for the way that we and our children interact with the world on an emotional level?

That’s the question posed in a recent Guardian article by Maryanne Wolf the Director of the Centre for Dyslexia, Diverse Learners and Social Justice at the University of California Los Angeles. Wolf points out that when our brains developed the circuitry necessary to deal with the advent of literacy over 6,000 years ago, that the development of the “reading brain” enabled the development of “internalized knowledge, analogical reasoning, and inference: perspective-taking and empathy, critical analysis and the generation of insight.” These are fundamental skills necessary for human beings to function within society in relation to other humans and in Wolf’s analysis they may all be under threat from “digital-based modes of reading.”

The digital age and the requirements it places on us to absorb large amounts of information as quickly as possible may be leading to a situation in which many of the benefits of the traditional “deep-reading processes” are being gradually erased.

Research in the US has shown that college students are avoiding courses involving the reading of classic literature from the 19th and 20th centuries due to lack of patience with the concentration needed to read the texts. This is not just a case of youthful boredom argues Wolf, but rather indicative of a generation who lack the inability read and deal with the greater world with the same levels of critical analysis as previous generations.

Wolf also points to a study conducted amongst Norwegian students in which half read a short story with “universal and easy to comprehend appeal” on their Kindles, while the other half read the text in paperback. The results? Those who read the good old-fashioned print version demonstrated superior comprehension skills, especially when it came to recalling plot and chronology.

The negative effects of screen reading can be observed from as early as fourth or fifth Grade

It also seems that in the digital age, skim reading has come to surpass deep reading as the norm. Digital readers tend to read in “an F or Z pattern,” sampling the first line of a piece and then word-spotting their way through the rest of it.

While this way of reading may serve as a means for obtaining the basic information contained in a piece, it doesn’t allow any time for perception, comprehension of complexities, empathy or the pleasure that comes from a reader’s ability to create their own thoughts as a result of what they’re reading. A group of researchers has also found that the negative effects of screen reading can be observed from “as early as fourth or fifth Grade,” levels.

Although neither Wolf or any of the researchers she sights seem to be advocating for a Luddite revolt against digital technologies, they are trying to draw attention to some of the pitfalls of an all-screen-reading experience on our brains and Wolf has called for the development of “a bi-literate reading brain capable of the deepest thought in either digital or traditional mediums.”

Reading print is therefore still good for your grey matter but that doesn’t mean you can’t also catch up on important information such as this on your phone too. Like most things it seems to be a case of keeping a balance between the two mediums until our brains develop a completely new digital reading circuitry that will lead to the development of god knows what kind of set of new emotions and characteristics.

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