I was not born to read. In fact, none of us were. Unlike language, which sprouts from the lips of most toddlers effortlessly, reading is an art which must be drilled into us in elementary school and continuously practiced afterwards. In “Reader, Come Home: The Reading Brain in a Digital World,” Tufts professor Maryanne Wolf explains the inner workings of the intellectual feat each of you reading this article has accomplished. Although wealth and body type may be passed down in the family, in each generation the neural circuitry of the reading brain must be rebuilt completely afresh. Once we understand this fact, we can understand how digital media are changing how we read — and the implications of those changes for our society at large.
Wolf describes the neural process of reading as a multi-ringed circus with each part of the brain passing information to the next in an efficient, graceful performance. Central to reading is controlling one’s attention. The prefrontal cortex must first detach itself from one object of attention, move its focus to the new object, then — and this proves to be most difficult nowadays — maintain its focus. As one gazes at a page, neurons in the eye trigger corresponding neurons in the brain. Then, grey, gooey and ready to read, the brain springs up as if it were a big top tent raised by small electric ropes. Diverse portions of our cerebral organ are now primed to carry out their respective duties. Language, vision, conception and motion work in unison — only instead of merely speaking, seeing, thinking and moving, they work together to parse letters into sentences, understand what those sentences mean and generate thoughts beyond the text.
During this millisecond-long chain of events, a number of surprising phenomena crop up. For example, if one reads the word “sprint,” the motor section of the brain subtly primes itself to stimulate the neurons that move the muscles associated with running. Wolf goes into greater detail surrounding the neuroscience of reading, but this explanation of the mechanics of reading ground us for questions about the current state of reading and its future.
One must first ask: Why should we read in the first place? Apart from the sheer pleasure it generates in those of us who regularly read, there are scientific and social reasons for spending hours immersed in a good book, whether that book teaches us about literature, science or history. Wolf provides evidence that reading supports three particular types of thinking invaluable for a modern nation: analogical, critical and empathic thinking.
Humans improve upon their knowledge of the world through analogies. By paying close attention to a new piece of information and holding it in our working memory, we can relate it to something we understood before. Each of us has a private mental storehouse of background knowledge off of which we can springboard towards new knowledge. Analogies are that midair arc between what we know and what we don’t know yet. Critical thinking meanwhile involves assessing new information, asking, “Is this true, and is this useful?” If so, we can understand the information and store it as knowledge in our long-term memory.
One of Wolf’s concerns surrounding online reading is that it disrupts the attention necessary for deep reading. Children and adults alike suffer from the distracting elements present on a web page. Links zip off to completely unrelated topics; advertisements fly horizontally with sound and video; the format is more of an endless vertical scroll which encourages quicker reading rather than the more recursive, backward-referencing technology of delimited double pages.
Technologies such as the Internet or smartphones capitalize on the brain’s attraction to new stimuli, rewarding us as we skim over information in multiple short articles or respond to a notification — the equivalent of “brain candy” that engages the pleasure system in our brains. We become habituated to these new stimuli and need new ones so that dopamine can produce the same effect. Part of the problem stems from the distracting features built into the Internet; part of it stems from the large amount of information available online. When we are faced with a torrent of information, our brains are overwhelmed and revert to instinctive, simplistic ways of assessing information: Does this confirm what I believe? Am I testing this argument through my knowledge and logical prowess or through my emotions?
Overall, “Reader, Come Home” is a compendium of scientific research supporting the intuition many of you may have, namely, that those of us who use the Internet frequently find it increasingly difficult to focus on reading longer texts and handle their demands.
Her research is impeccable, and I encourage everyone to learn more about the challenges we face toward maintaining attention. However, I found Wolf’s emphasis on the decrease in empathetic thinking inadequate in evidence. She ties empathy to literacy, which I do find compelling in my own experience traveling to other lands and other minds through fiction. Still, Wolf could have included more scientific evidence to support this claim. Is it true that empathy is declining? How do researchers measure this? Another question arises, one that Wolf does not address: Does this mean that non-literate societies are less empathetic?
I also question her assertion that we may be transitioning to a “culture in which complex ideas are no longer the dominant currency,” for I must ask, “Have we ever lived in such a culture?” I think of the Trinidadian writer C.L.R. James’ observation in his essay “The Nucleus of a Great Civilization” that Londoners in the 1930s read mostly gossip and scandal in the Sunday papers. This was a time after almost 60 years of compulsory education for the British people, a time without the flood of digital “content,” and yet the complaint echoes nonetheless. There are similar examples in past literature, and at any rate Wolf does not give us evidence of such a decline in the dominance of “complex ideas.”
Wolf compensates for this when she argues for the improvement the literacy of 21st century children. Only one third of American children now can read with sufficient understanding and speed. There is hope that children have a greater ability than adults to move their attention across multiple streams of information without losing focus. Yet, they are capable only if they are already trained in synthesizing the two streams of information. They must first be literate in traditional reading as well as YouTube if they are to toggle between the two.
At the end of the book, Wolf proposes new curricula in schools that would teach children how to shift their brains from paper to the digital. Reading on screens would not be introduced until five years of age, and from the ages of five to 10, students would know which media are suited to which purposes. Wolf is optimistic (perhaps too much so, given the state of our country’s public schools) that with the right research and teacher training, we can prepare students for the future.
On the whole, the book is a rewarding read, not only because of the ideas Wolf presents us with but also because of her warm writing style and rich allusion to literary and philosophical thinkers, infused with such a breadth of authors that only a true lover of reading could have written this book. It is a necessary volume for everyone who wants to understand the current state of reading in America.
Contact Scott Stevens at scotts7 ‘at’ stanford.edu.