Reading on-screen will turn your brain into mush
Digital devices take away basic skills necessary for human beings to function in relation to other humans
Over the years there has been plenty of research into the effects of our touch-screen dominated world – what our phones and iPads and computer screens are doing to us. But what if our screens and devices aren’t just increasing our risks of early blindness and being blackmailed by Russian hackers? What if they are changing the circuits in our brains to the point where they affect the way we and our children interact with the world on an emotional level?
That’s the question posed in a recent Guardian article by Maryanne Wolf, director of the Centre for Dyslexia, Diverse Learners and Social Justice at the University of California Los Angeles. When our brains developed the circuitry to deal with the advent of literacy over 6,000 years ago, the development of the “reading brain” enabled “internalised knowledge, analogical reasoning, and inference: perspective-taking and empathy, critical analysis and the generation of insight”. These fundamental skills are necessary for human beings to function in relation to other humans – and in Wolf’s analysis they may all be under threat from “digital-based modes of reading”.The digital age and the requirements it places on us to absorb large amounts of information as quickly as possible may be leading to a situation in which many of the benefits of the traditional “deep-reading processes” are being gradually erased. Research in the US has shown that college students are avoiding courses that involve the reading of classic literature from the 19th and 20th centuries due to lack of patience with the concentration needed to read the texts. This is not just a case of youthful boredom, argued Wolf, but indicates a generation who lack the ability to read and deal with the greater world with the same levels of critical analysis as previous generations.
Wolf also pointed to a study among Norwegian students in which half read a short story with “universal and easy to comprehend appeal” on their Kindles, while the other half read the text in paperback. The results? Those who read the good old-fashioned print version demonstrated superior comprehension skills, especially when it came to recalling plot and chronology.It also seems that in the digital age skim reading has come to surpass deep reading as the norm – digital readers tend to read in “an F or Z pattern”, sampling the first line of a piece and then word-spotting their way through the rest of it. While it may serve as a means to obtain basic information, it doesn’t allow time for perception, comprehension of complexities, empathy, or the pleasure that comes from a reader’s ability to create their own thoughts as a result of what they’re reading. Researchers found that the negative effects of screen reading can be observed from “as early as fourth or fifth grade” levels.
Although neither Wolf nor any of the researchers she cites advocate a Luddite revolt against digital technologies, they draw attention to the pitfalls of an all-screen-reading experience on our brains. Wolf has called for the development of “a bi-literate reading brain capable of the deepest thought in either digital or traditional mediums”.
Reading print is therefore still good for your grey matter but that doesn’t mean you can’t also catch up on important information such as this on your phone too. It seems to be a case of keeping a balance between the two mediums until our brains develop a completely new digital reading circuitry that will lead to the development of god knows what kind of new emotions and characteristics.