Deb: The reading brain drain

Perhaps many of you probably feel, like me, that you don’t read as much as you once did.

While that may be true for novels and the like, the reality is that never before have we been exposed to so much textual information.

Deb-Reading-SocialMediaFrom the moment we open our eyes in the morning until we close them at night, we are reading…..text messages, Twitter, Facebook, emails, and then at work or throughout the day, the barrage of words just keeps on coming. The thing that has actually changed is what we read and, possibly more importantly, how we read.

Yet, Maryanne Wolf, a cognitive neuroscientist and Director of the Centre for Reading and Language research at Tufts University in Massachusetts, states,

“We were never born to read.”

Unlike speech for example, reading is not instinctive. In fact, humans have only been reading for the past 3,500-5,500 years, and there are still a number of languages in the world that have no writing system. Literacy, as Wolf explains, is “a cultural invention”.

The ability to read is a result of complex brain circuitry that we develop over time through experience and practice: the so-called ‘reading brain’.

For many of us, reading in print, particularly for pleasure, has been sacrificed in favour of reading online. But digital reading is different to reading print. The texts are generally shorter and more fragmented, and we switch between modes (audio, video) or flick between websites…meaning that we are often skimming multiple sources and ‘textbites’ rather than engaging in deep focussed reading.

 “The next best thing to knowing something is knowing where to find it.”
Samuel Johnson

Deb-TextBiteReadingOne of the primary affordances of e-reading is the ability to locate specific information in a text by searching for keywords. A very handy feature for locating specific information, but it appears that this “snippet approach” is becoming more prevalent in academic reading to the extent that there is a shift from continuous reading to “reading on the prowl”, and “reading” has now come to mean “finding information” (Baron, 2015, Words Onscreen: The Fate of Reading in a Digital World).

So what is the implication of this change in reading practice?

Many university lecturers have spoken to me about today’s students’ reluctance to read extensively, and their apparent inability for deep reading and comprehension. Research supports these concerns, showing that digital reading has led to a reduced capacity for sustained attention and concentration, and even when undertaking extensive reading on screen, studies have shown that we don’t remember it as readily as when reading in print.

I personally know that reading complex text is more challenging for me than it once was, but I had put this down to just another effect of ageing. However, after reading Wolf’s research, it seems more plausible that my ‘reading brain’ and my diminished ability to concentrate on complex text could actually be the result of my increased digital reading and what I would call “efficient information seeking practices” (Read: search, skim, YouTube video anyone?).

Neuroscience explains that because of the brain’s plasticity, the circuitry of the ‘reading brain’ can change. As an adult I recognise that I have lost something I once had, but what about children growing up who have never developed the skills required for deep concentrated reading, and who may never do so.

Are we being dumbed down by our current reading practices?

According to Wolf, “it is critical to understand this form of the reading brain, lest it begin to threaten the very kind of intelligence that has flourished from the historical development of sophisticated expert reading”.

For those of you concerned about your reading brain, all is not lost.

The good news is that Wolf and others believe it is possible to rewire this part of our brain by adopting a ‘slow reading approach’, which involves spending time engaging fully with complex texts without any distraction from other media.

Deb-BrainDrainTreeLike any other kind of training, it will be difficult at first, but over days and weeks, they claim that improvements will be noticed in concentration and comprehension. Yes, simply yet another case of ‘use it or lose it’.

So, now excuse me while I go look for my copy of “War and Peace”!

Yours in conversation,