Our 'Deep Reading' Brain: Its Digital Evolution Poses Questions

By Wolf, Maryanne | Nieman Reports, Summer 2010 | Go to article overview

Our 'Deep Reading' Brain: Its Digital Evolution Poses Questions


Wolf, Maryanne, Nieman Reports


Will we lose the "deep reading" brain in a digital culture? No one knows--yet. The preceding paragraph provides a legitimate synopsis of this essay. It also exemplifies the kind of reduced reading that concerns me greatly, both for expert adult readers and even more so for young novice readers, those who are learning how to read in a way that helps them to comprehend and expand upon the information given.

The challenges surrounding how we learn to think about what we read raise profound questions. They have implications for us intellectually, socially and ethically. Whether an immersion in digitally dominated forms of reading will change the capacity to think deeply, reflectively and in an intellectually autonomous manner when we read is a question well worth raising. But it isn't one I can answer now, given how early we are in the transition to digital content.

In my work on the evolution of the reading brain during the past decade, I have found important insights from the history of literacy, neuroscience and literature that can help to better prepare us to examine this set of issues. The historical moment that best approximates the present transition from a literate to a digital culture is found in the ancient Greeks' transition from an oral culture to a literacy-based culture. Socrates, who was arguably Greece's most eloquent apologist for an oral culture, protested against the acquisition of literacy. And he did so on the basis of questions that are prescient today--and, in that prescience, surprising.

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Socrates contended that the seeming permanence of the printed word would delude the young into thinking they had accessed the crux of knowledge, rather than simply decoded it. For him, only the intellectually effortful process of probing, analyzing and internalizing knowledge would enable the young to develop a lifelong, personal approach to knowing and thinking, which could lead them to their ultimate goals--wisdom and virtue. Only the examined word--and the examined life--was worth pursuing. Literacy, Socrates believed, would short-circuit both.

Using a 21st century paraphrase, the operative word is "short-circuited." I use it to segue into a different, yet concrete way of conceptualizing Socrates's elegantly described worries. Modern imaging technology allows us to scan the brains of expert and novice readers and observe how human brains learn to read. Briefly, here is what I've find: Whenever we learn something new, the brain forms a new circuit that connects some of the brain's original structures. In the case of learning to read, the brain builds connections between and among the visual, language and conceptual areas that are part of our genetic heritage, but that were never woven together in this way before.

Brain Pathways: Created By Reading

Gradually we are beginning to understand the stunning complexity that is involved in the expert reader's brain circuit. For example, when reading even a single word, the first milliseconds of the reading circuit are largely devoted to decoding the word's visual information and connecting it to all that we know about the word from its sounds to meanings to syntactic functions. The virtual automaticity of this first set of stages allows us in the next milliseconds to go beyond the decoded text. It is within the next precious milliseconds that we enter a cognitive space where we can connect the decoded information to all that we know and feel. In this latter part of the process of reading, we are given the ability to think new thoughts of our own: the generative core of the reading process.

Perhaps no one better captured what the reader begins to think in those last milliseconds of the reading circuit than the French novelist Marcel Proust. In 1906, he characterized the heart of reading as that moment when "that which is the end of [the author's] wisdom appears to us as but the beginning of ours:" A bit more than a century later, in 2010, book editor Peter Dimock said that "[this] kind of reading, then, is a time of internal solitary consciousness in which the reading consciousness is brought up to the level of the knowledge of the author--the farthest point another mind has reached, as it were . …

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