June 16, 2010

Surf at Your Own Peril

From the Web to the iPad, we’re rewiring our brains when we read online, and that’s probably a bad thing, especially for kids, says Maryanne Wolf

By Marjorie Howard

Is how we read—within a book, on the Web, on a Kindle or an iPad or even on our phones—rewiring our brains and affecting how we think? Maryanne Wolf says it is, and she’s especially concerned about how this will play out for the generation of “digital natives” who have known nothing else except bouncing from one screen to another.

“My worry is that children are becoming wonderfully engaged with the superficial levels of information but unaware of the need to probe and think for themselves,” says Maryanne Wolf. Photo: Alonso Nichols

Wolf founded the Center for Reading and Language Research at Tufts and is a professor in the Eliot-Pearson Department of Child Development in the School of Arts and Sciences. The John DiBiaggio Professor of Citizenship and Public Service, she has spent more than 20 years developing and evaluating methods for testing and for intervention for dyslexia.

In her book Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain (Harper-Collins, 2007), Wolf tracks reading’s evolution and its effect on our lives, especially in this digital era. Now she is working on a new book, which will “reflect on the relationships between the quality of reading and the quality of thought, and between the quality of thought and the quality of our lives,” she says.

How our digital dependence is changing the way we think is becoming a widespread concern. In a new book, The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains (Norton), author Nicholas Carr says, “When we go online, we enter an environment that promotes cursory reading, hurried and distracted thinking and superficial learning.” How this happens and what we can do about it are much on Wolf’s mind these days.


Tufts Journal: What happens in the brain when we read?

Maryanne Wolf: The reading brain forms over many years. It begins with a new “circuit” that the brain has to make, and in that circuitry—across all languages—some things are going to be there: the visual and linguistic processes and the conceptual processes. But there are as many differences as there are similarities between languages and between writing systems. The Chinese reading brainsis quite different from the English reading brain. The English reading brain is a little different from the German, Italian and Spanish reading brains. The basic fact is that the brain circuit is malleable for reading, and changes with the demands of the writing system.

“Most of us associate a screen with speed, efficiency and ‘digital time,’ ” says Maryanne Wolf. Photo: Alonso Nichols

Doesn’t the brain work the same regardless of whether you’re reading from a printed page or online?

The brain alters itself according to several important factors, such as the writing system, the expertise of the developing reader, the medium and the material being read. All these characteristics shape the circuit. Knowing that, we can infer that the reading brain will adapt itself to the varied characteristics of the medium. What we don’t know is just how different these characteristics of the various mediums are, particularly for different readers who might have learned to read in quite divergent ways.

For example, the brain of a child who is immersed in six to seven hours of digitally dominated media daily and reads only a little offline will have differences from a child immersed only in books and who learns to attend, concentrate and think about what he or she reads. I have a brain shaped largely by a book-oriented formation. It is little surprise that when I want to really concentrate, I print out an online page. For me, online reading means efficiency, multitasking and just getting the information quickly processed. I do not have the same level of concentration and focus, and I think if we could get an image of my brain’s activation patterns, it would show those differences.

What concerns you about how children are learning how to read?
My principal worry is that children who are learning to read while immersed in a digital environment may not develop what I call the “expert reading brain,” one that learns in its formation process to integrate ever more sophisticated, deep reading comprehension processes, such as inference and analogy and bringing to bear background knowledge.

Ultimately those deep reading processes lead the reader to go beyond what is read to his or her own thoughts. That’s the acme of reading: the ability to use and integrate this vast array of really sophisticated intellectual tools to think for ourselves.

In education we learn to engage our children’s imagination. The problem with much of our digital media is that they engage attention quickly and then engage again and again. Children are constantly moving to the next piece of information. My worry is that the developing brain in digital media will not learn to give sufficient time to the deep reading processes.

Should we be letting children use the Internet and other digital material?

We don’t have the research to provide the best response to that question. There is no question that most children today are spending a minimum of six hours a day on various digital media. To me, the solution or approach is to keep our eyes on the cognitive repertoire of intellectual skills we most want in our children and to determine which mediums are amplifying what set of skills best.

We want children to possess the capacity to concentrate on, critically analyze and prioritize the flood of information they are getting daily. My worry is that children are becoming wonderfully engaged with the superficial levels of information but unaware of the need to probe and think for themselves. In Nick Carr’s terms, we may all be taking on characteristics of the tool, rather than using the tool to expand our own thoughts.

Is this the first time we’ve faced such a drastic change in how we obtain information?

Pascal said that there’s nothing new on this earth. Within that context there was a similar kind of cultural transition from the oral culture of the Greeks and to a literate culture. Socrates protested such a move and more or less said, “Oh no, we can’t learn to read, we’ll lose all this quality of thought, this quality of memory, this approach to memory.” He said that the most dangerous aspect of reading is that its very concreteness—its seeming impermeability—would delude our youth into thinking they understood something before they had even begun to understand. Similar arguments could be made for our youth today who think that after they google something they “know all about it.”

Is multitasking a good thing?

It’s a skill our children have to have in this world. But there are different kinds of multitasking, some of which are anything but efficient in terms of real learning. For example, research by a colleague of mine, Russ Poldrack, shows that in college students who are “digital natives,” the brain is actually skipping like a rock on water, from one thing to another, but not really accomplishing true learning in any of the skips. If true learning is required, they have to go back and do things step by step. We’re often not learning when we’re multitasking; we’re just skimming the surface. When you want to learn something, concentration on each aspect of the task will deepen your ability to learn.

What’s different about reading on an e-book like the Kindle?
Most of us associate a screen with speed, efficiency and “digital time,” which gives a certain attitude towards reading on any screen medium. I think this will factor into the way we read with something like a Kindle. We are reading for speed and efficiency, even when the very text invites slower processes.

There are also people who talk about the aesthetics—what they call the haptics, the tactile, the kinesthetic dimensions—of book reading, which poises the reader to enter a type of cognitive space and time that literally slows you down in a ruminative way. By contrast, the screen is still associated with an urge toward rapidity and the next possible activity, like email.

Would you buy an e-book?

At this moment, I don’t want to because of a more subtle principle about time. For a half hour before bedtime and a half hour in the morning I do nothing digital. I try to center myself as much as I possibly can to prepare for the freneticism that I think is dictating too much of our lives. On those days when I actually have the time to truly read, then I want every dimension of a book by my side, beginning and ending with the book’s ability to take me outside of time.


Related story: “Your Brain on Books: You Are What You Read,” by Maryanne Wolf in Tufts Magazine.

Marjorie Howard can be reached at marjorie.howard@tufts.edu.

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