What Tech Does to the Reading Brain.

This is exactly the sort of pop-psych piece beloved of op-ed pages and their online equivalents, but what the hell, it’s interesting: Angela Chen interviews Maryanne Wolf about her book Reader, Come Home (subtitle: “the reading brain in a digital world”). Chen starts with a question about the idea of “circuits” in the brain; Wolf responds:

When we have any function, whether it’s language or vision or cognitive functions like memory, we aren’t dealing with a straight line to the brain that says “This is what I do.” The brain builds a network of connections, a network of neurons that have a particular role in that function. So when we have a new cognitive function, like literacy, it doesn’t have a preset network. Rather, it makes new connections among older networks, and that whole collection of networks becomes a circuit. It’s a connected scaffolding of parts.

The beauty of the circuit for functions like literacy is its plasticity. You can have one for each different language, like English or Chinese or Hebrew. And then something miraculous happens: the circuit builds upon itself. The first circuits are very basic — for decoding letters as we’re learning to read — but everything we read builds upon itself.

So what’s changing now with technology? How is that affecting our circuits?

The fact that a circuit is plastic is both its beautiful strength and its Achilles’ heel. Reading reflects our medium. And to the extent that a digital medium is going to require us to process large amounts of information very quickly, it will diminish from the time we have for slower processing work.

And these slower processes are deep learning, the ones that are more cognitively challenging. They’re the basis for going beyond that initial short circuit of decoding the information and understanding it at a very basic level. The digital medium affordance rewards and advantages fast processing at the cost of the slower processes that build our very important critical, analytical, and empathetic processes.

Wolf proposes we aim for a “bi-literate brain.” I leave it to my readers to decide the relative proportions of sense and woo in all this. Thanks, Jack!

Comments

  1. John Cowan says:

    I can no more believe that reading a book off a screen changes the perception of it by the brain than I believe that reading a book from a codex rather than a scroll changes it. It’s not the medium that requires us to process a great deal of information quickly.

  2. Stu Clayton says:

    And to the extent that a digital medium is going to require us to process large amounts of information very quickly, it will diminish from the time we have for slower processing work.

    That’s a sneaky conditional. Few people can process large amounts of information very quickly – whatever “process” means. First of all, it’s not the medium that requires, as John points out. Only persons require – that is, either you subject yourself to “processing” all those words, or someone else subjects you, for instance your boss. Thank goodness only results count – the boss has not read the words either.

    Secondly, a large number of words is not automatically information, for several reasons: 1) words I ignore cannot inform, and 2) it is not the case (against what is being implied) that everything someone says or writes is worth paying attention to. Think Facebook, Twitter and that very pop-psych piece. The way I “process” lotsa-words is to skim and skip, looking for raisins and grit. The people who write the descriptions of bank IT processes that I am confronted with every week are masters of écriture automatique.

    Also: “diminish from the time” ? How about “diminish the time”.

  3. Why this pervasive feeling that something is added by reifying “capability” into “circuit”? Thaumaturgical neurology.

  4. Stu Clayton says:

    Fallacy of misplaced concreteness.

  5. I must be ahead of the curve. I thought “The Glass Bead Game” was boring before the Internet.

  6. I know a lot of English teachers who buy into stuff like this, and it’s frustrating. I think students should be exposed to reading in different ways, but the idea that it’s self-evident that we should somehow prioritize *slowness* in reading and thought is bizarre to me. It would be like math teachers deciding that students shouldn’t ever use multiplication, because careful and patient addition is so valuable to the deep tissues and “circuits” of the brain.

  7. Lars (the original one) says:

    bank IT processes — so that’s why the Grumbly. Would get to even a saint.

  8. Trond Engen says:

    I have a brother and a brother in law who both work with that, and I know nothing at all. Maybe it’s because they can’t say anything — and are good at it — or maybe it’s because I’ve never asked. Or maybe they’ve told me lots and I didn’t process it.

  9. Thanks for using woo. It is a favorite of mine (and is also popular with many who pitch said woo).

  10. David Eddyshaw says:

    I submit a revised version of the article, amended for accuracy:

    What tech does to the reading brain.

    Nothing.

  11. I’m afraid I tend to agree with Maryanne Wolf. As a medium, the Internet does seem to encourage a certain style of reading — dipping, switching, jumping, clicking, scrolling — that is less common if you are used to paper books. The very process of scrolling down to get to the next bit and the links that beckon you away encourage a jumpy style of reading. This might be due to the medium (bright screens aren’t easy on the eye for extended periods of time) or the style that the medium has fostered (information is scattered over individual web pages, each page is relatively short and writing is designed to be superficial and snappy so as to grab the reader’s attention, and ease of publishing lowers the bar for entry). The overall effect is to create impatience in the reader and discourage careful, sustained reading. If anything, the web is more like a gossip magazine than a book. You read the parts that interest you (or at least the bits that seem interesting at the time) and throw the rest away.

  12. As a medium, the Internet does seem to encourage a certain style of reading

    Sure, I don’t think anyone would disagree with that. It’s the leap from that to the pseudo-scientific stuff about rewiring our brain circuits that inspires irritation.

  13. John Cowan says:

    I think it’s hypertext rather than the web/internet that inspires that style of reading. By no means everything on the web is hypertext in that sense. A PDF is not, and the texts at Project Gutenberg are not, even if they have hyperlinks to jump to the beginning of chapters. A book remains a book even when digitized.

  14. Stu Clayton says:

    In one widespread view, words point beyond themselves to what they mean. So every word is already hypertext. Hyperlinks are merely an in-your-face mechanism on that principle.

  15. hypertext rather than the web/internet

    Well, the Internet is based on hypertext. That was one of the key innovations (I think it was due to Tim Berners-Lee) that launched the World Wide Web as we know it. The fact that certain kinds of document (pdf, etc.) can be accessed from the World Wide Web does not alter its essential nature.

  16. What Tim Berners-Lee did was twofold. He came up with the idea of presenting hypertext pages in which every resource was fetched separately. That meant that a given page could use image and text files from any commonly addressable location, and likewise, links could be directed to arbitrary off-site locations. He probably was not the first person to think of this possibility, but he made it practical through his second innovation, the first text-based markup language that could be used to generate hypertext pages. (I remember at the opening of the 2012 London Olympics, they had an extended “Thanks, Tim” show, but essentially none of the technology on display as part of the program had anything to do with what Berners-Lee did to develop the World-Wide Web.)

    The idea of hypertext itself is older. The OED has two citations (from 1965 and 1967) from papers by Ted Nelson, who coined the word:

    Let me introduce the word ‘hypertext’ to mean a body of written or pictorial material interconnected in such a complex way that it could not conveniently be presented or represented on paper.

    Such a congeries of interconnected text may incorporate and have available many chunks of literature on a given subject, or many subjects, purposely assembled and woven together by authors and editors. The name for this new medium is hypertext.

    That’s a nice use of congeries. Unfortunately, the OED entry for congeries looks like it has not been touched since 1891, and so it does not have any quotations from Lovecraft, who really seemed fond of the word.

  17. David Eddyshaw says:

    I well recall Lovecraft’s “The Horror from the Fourth Declension.”

  18. David Eddyshaw says:

    Fifth Declension. Whatever.

    It’s Magnum Cthulhu that’s from the Fourth Declension, of course.

  19. I well recall Lovecraft’s “The Horror from the Fourth Declension.”

    I prefer “The Clause of Cthulhu” myself. Or “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward”. (Spoiler: it’s the genitive.)

  20. David Eddyshaw says:

    Grammar Horror is a branch of Corpus Linguistics.

  21. David Marjanović says:

    bright screens aren’t easy on the eye for extended periods of time

    That’s why I always decrease “the brightness” to 0% – which isn’t total darkness at all, it just means switching the additional backlighting off. I only turn it back on when I’m sitting in front of or right next to a window and it’s sunny outside.

  22. January First-of-May says:

    That’s why I always decrease “the brightness” to 0% – which isn’t total darkness at all, it just means switching the additional backlighting off.

    As someone who just lost a laptop to a broken backlight, I actually feel kind of happy for you for having screens that can still be readable without the backlighting.

    (We would have just diagnosed it as a switched-off screen if my mom didn’t accidentally notice that if she looked at it from just the right angle there was a hint of the desktop background just barely visible.
    So I googled whether screens can get that dim, found the “broken backlight” possibility, and confirmed that I could actually see enough to interact with when shining on the screen with a flashlight.
    It’s still nigh-unusably dim even then, though.)

  23. David Marjanović says:

    Interesting. I’ve never seen that.

    Perhaps 0% isn’t even turning it off completely? But a screen at 0% does become completely unrecognizable when the sun shines on it or right next to it.

  24. I’m afraid I tend to agree with Maryanne Wolf. As a medium, the Internet does seem to encourage a certain style of reading — dipping, switching, jumping, clicking, scrolling — that is less common if you are used to paper books. The very process of scrolling down to get to the next bit and the links that beckon you away encourage a jumpy style of reading.

    So, basically, it’s like newspapers and magazines. (E.g., the front page of The Times from December 4, 1788 — four columns, twenty-one different items, just daring you to jump around!)

    Which means our “reading circuits” have been thoroughly messed up for more than a century. (Ah, for the days of the early 18th Century, when we could read properly…)

  25. As a physical medium, ’21 different items’ are still far different from computer or phone screens.

    1. Unlike the Internet, newspaper columns don’t lead you down a rabbit hole. You can come back quite easily by shifting your eyes over to the previous column or turning back a few pages. You can glance up to the top of the article or look down at the bottom. You don’t have to scroll.

    2. Newspapers (daily, weekly, or monthly) have a beginning and an end. The Internet is endless. (The advantage, of course, is that the Internet is searchable. Finding that article you read in the paper a few weeks back about growing red lettuce is almost an exercise in futility.)

    3. Newspapers ARE a more fragmented medium than books; they were meant to be like that (like gossip magazines). You look around, flip through, and find what you’re interested in. The Internet is, in that sense, similar to a newspaper. The only things similar to books on the Internet are pdf’s / word documents / kindle app, which are the exception rather than the norm.

  26. Ah, for the days of the early 18th Century, when we could read properly

    Pah. You have to go much further back than that; we’ve been going downhill ever since we switched to these damn codices. With a scroll, you don’t get a chance to wander — you just unroll and read from one end to the other, as the gods intended.

  27. Tsk … we all know that human memory was irredeemably damaged when we started scribbling signs to keep records instead of reciting knowledge and learning it by heart to fix it in memory!

  28. I used to know that but I forgot. Damn these signs and their destructive allure!

  29. John Cowan says:

    There are plenty of book-like things that aren’t PDFs, e-books, or Word documents. I refer once more to Project Gutenberg and its relatives like the Hathi Project, to say nothing of various bootleg sites that present up to tens of thousands of books fragmented to chapter or long-page sizes. The only difference from books is that it typically takes just one click to move along, which can tend to put the reader to sleep compared to the physical action involved in turning the page.

    Blog posts like these are only secondarily hypertexts, as their hyperlinks are more like citations. Other than comment self-links, links to commenter home pages, and the right margin, there is only one hyperlink on this page, and it is most definitely a citation.

  30. Talking of scrolls I wonder if anyone’s tried writing or printing a short story (or a novel or poem) on toilet paper and hanging it in the bathroom. Anything from one word to a page per sheet, you could buy a different toilet roll to read every time you visited the supermarket. I couldn’t do it, we only have one bathroom and it might become occupied for hours.

  31. @AJPC: I never got into the habit of reading (whether traditionally or electronically) in the bathroom. It seems to be one of those topics where everyone is baffled either that others do it or that they don’t.

    More seriously, though, I think a fair bit of samizdat literature has been written on toilet paper.

  32. Stu Clayton says:

    I’ve often read that de Sade wrote the 120 Journées de Sodome on sheets of toilet paper. This may be a learned legend, a silly joke become po-faced as it passed down the generations. Apart from that, I doubt that industry was up to rolls back then, or would have delivered them to the Bastille.

  33. Toilet paper, at least of the modern sort, does not seem very suitable for writing upon. The stuff I buy, which is soft, absorbent, and kind to Uranus, does not have the requisite qualities of smoothness and tensile robustness.

    The hard stuff that we used way back when would probably support writing by ballpoint pen, but it was not well suited to its intended purpose. As someone I worked with on a summer job once put it, “one side is like sandpaper, and the other side the shit slides right off.”

    I apologize for lowering the tone of this establishment.

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