Joseph Epstein said “We are what we read.” If he’s right, what does that mean for the next generation?
Reading shapes our civilization, our histories, and even, according to neuroscientists, ourselves. So how will a generation who at an early age encounters reading primarily on the screen differ from previous generations? In Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain, neuroscientist and literacy expert Maryanne Wolf explains why this change may be more profound than many now think.
It turns out that we are not born knowing how to read, that is, we are not genetically endowed with knowing how to read as we are with knowing how to see and how to speak. There is no particular part of the brain dedicated to reading. Rather, each of us creates our own reading capability by interconnecting various parts of the brain and weaving, in essence, our own reading minds. It is a combination of cognitive, visual, and linguistic skills with subtle, complex interconnections between various parts of the brain.
Infants begin to develop reading brains as they listen to elders speak and read to them. In fact every person learns to read uniquely, developing their own word associations and understanding of how language works and what words mean. In this sense each person creates their own reading mind, leading Professor Wolf to worry that the largely online experience of children today will change not only how the reading brain develops but also if in fact it will develop fully at all.
Reading Is Learning
In Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain, Wolf explains how children develop literacy skills. They start by naming things and recognizing letters. In so doing they enlist particular brain locations to connect visual capabilities with language skills. Gradually children begin to read, connecting objects they see with concepts and written symbols. Step by step, in what Mary Anne Wolf calls a “neuronal high-wire act,” they develop intellectual systems to recognize and interconnect multiple types of learning, from semantics and syntax to conceptual, affective, and social knowledge.
The Gift of Time
Are neuroscientists amassing all this evidence just to bemoan the demise of reading books today in favor of surfing the internet or cable television channels? Hardly. What they emphasize is not reading per se but the development of the reading brain, and how reading offers the gift of time, a gift readers use to think and learn. The gift of time allows for deep knowledge and an understanding that goes beyond the translating or decoding of the symbols on the page into words. It far exceeds the mere processing of information.Wolf argues that there’s a big difference between being literate—being able to read—and being an expert reader, a difference she explores in explaining how people commonly read online as opposed to how they read a book.
Reading Online and Off
Since Gutenberg, books have connoted permanence and authority. They have always been sources of knowledge. By and large people read privately, entering for a time a world shared with an author. They partake of the author’s vision of the shape and meaning of things. In The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age, Sven Birkerts calls the reading experience one of deep time, or duration time (as Henri Bergson defined long ago), within which events resonate and carry meaning. Paradoxically, deep time is an experience of time without being aware that time is actually passing. Narrative meaning accumulates as the static print is absorbed linearly at a pace where there is time to think, grapple with issues and events, and learn.
With online reading, on the other hand, we receive not the gift of time but the pressure of speed. Information streams by and seems at once voluminous and unending but at the same time evanescent and insubstantial. The old New Yorker joke about how on the Internet nobody knows you’re a dog bites back. On the Internet texts are notoriously unreliable. It is difficult to assess the veracity of the sources, easy for poseurs to mimic trusted authorities. Hackers and other pranksters can anonymously and transparently doctor information, leaving no evidence that anything has changed.
The continual invitation to move from one page to another jars and discombobulates. Hypertext links constantly beckon one to jump to another topic before one has finished the first topic, often with little guarantee that the information found through the link will be enlightening or even relevant. One never knows what may show up next, or indeed popup, or slide, onto the screen, repeatedly interrupting the reader’s focus. Reading on line is one continuous interruptive process.
By and large people don’t read continuously online. Instead they multitask, a term originally coined to describe what a computer, not a human being, could do. And computers are quite good at processing more than one set of tasks at a time. Human beings, on the other hand, are actually pretty lousy at it. Not surprisingly, for any of us who have tried to drive and talk on the phone at the same time, a recent study by UCLA scientists indicated that when people are asked to do more than one task at once, they do everything less well. The constant switching from one task to another stimulates the parts of the brain that process visual images and physical coordination at the expense of some higher functions, like memory and learning. Says Russell Poldrack, who headed the study: "Multitasking adversely affects how you learn. Even if you learn while multitasking, that learning is less flexible and more specialized, so you cannot retrieve the information as easily.”
The Evolving Brain
Drawing on the latest in neurophysiologic research, Manfred Spitzer, author of The Mind within the Net, also warns that children, in order to learn, need structure based on examples that reflect an underlying organization. They then build on the learning of simple concepts to tackle more complex ones. Random examples, which are unconnected and often contradictory, make it much harder for children to extract the rules and so begin to learn. This seems to bode ill for children who begin to surf the web at an early age and later learn to do their homework while IM’ing several friends and listening to the TV in the background. Maryanne Wolf worries about how multitasking and multimedia experiences are molding the brains of the next generation too. Her concern is that children will become mere decoders of information rather than developing a continually deepening understanding of the world around them. But, Wolf adds, we just don’t know enough about how the next generation’s brains are developing yet to draw any conclusions.
This Is Your Brain Online
Not only do human beings create their own reading minds, their brains continue to change throughout their lives, albeit at a slower pace than children’s do. In the meantime, our adult brains may be in for some reshaping too as people use the web more and more for sources of information. It is the plasticity of the brain that leads Manfred Spitzer and other neurophysiologists to warn people to “watch their mental diet.” For it turns out our brains adapt to what we regularly experience. That’s something to think about when you next decide to surf the web instead of picking up a book.