How Do We Read Differently With Screens?

Author Maryanne Wolf writes that reading-brain circuits are shaped by environmental factors. What does that mean in the digital age?

The following is an excerpt of Reader, Come Home by Maryanne Wolf.

Dear Reader,

You stand at the doorway of my words; together we stand at the threshold of galactic changes over the next few generations. These letters are my invitation to consider an improbable set of facts about reading and the reading brain, whose implications will lead to significant cognitive changes in you, the next generation, and possibly our species. My letters are also an invitation to look at other changes, more subtle ones, and consider whether you have moved, unaware, away from the home that reading once was for you. For most of us, these changes have begun.

blue maze-like image with book in center

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Reader, Come Home: The Reading Brain in a Digital World


Let’s begin with a deceptively simple fact that has inspired my work on the reading brain over the last decade and move from there: Human beings were never born to read. The acquisition of literacy is one of the most important epigenetic achievements of Homo sapiens. To our knowledge, no other species ever acquired it. The act of learning to read added an entirely new circuit to our hominid brain’s repertoire. The long developmental process of learning to read deeply and well changed the very structure of that circuit’s connections, which rewired the brain, which transformed the nature of human thought.

What we read, how we read, and why we read change how we think, changes that are continuing now at a faster pace. In a span of only six millennia reading became the transformative catalyst for intellectual development within individuals and within literate cultures. The quality of our reading is not only an index of the quality of our thought, it is our best-known path to developing whole new pathways in the cerebral evolution of our species. There is much at stake in the development of the reading brain and in the quickening changes that now characterize its current, evolving iterations.

You need only examine yourself. Perhaps you have already noticed how the quality of your attention has changed the more you read on screens and digital devices. Perhaps you have felt a pang of something subtle that is missing when you seek to immerse yourself in a once favorite book. Like a phantom limb, you remember who you were as a reader, but cannot summon that “attentive ghost” with the joy you once felt in being transported somewhere outside the self to that interior space. It is more difficult still with children, whose attention is continuously distracted and flooded by stimuli that will never be consolidated in their reservoirs of knowledge. This means that the very basis of their capacity to draw analogies and inferences when they read will be less and less developed. Young reading brains are evolving without a ripple of concern by most people, even though more and more of our youths are not reading other than what is required and often not even that: “tl; dr” (too long; didn’t read).

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In our almost complete transition to a digital culture we are changing in ways we never realized would be the unintended collateral consequences of the greatest explosion of creativity, invention, and discovery in our history. As I chronicle in these letters, there is as much reason for excitement as caution if we turn our attention to the specific changes in the evolving reading brain that are happening now and may happen in different ways in a few short years. This is because the transition from a literacy-based culture to a digital one differs radically from previous transitions from one form of communication to another. Unlike in the past, we possess both the science and the technology to identify potential changes in how we read—and thus how we think—before such changes are fully entrenched in the population and accepted without our comprehension of the consequences.

The building of this knowledge can provide the theoretical basis for changing technology to redress its own weaknesses, whether in more refined digital modes of reading or the creation of alternative, developmentally hybrid approaches to acquiring it. What we can learn, therefore, about the impact of different forms of reading on cognition and culture has profound implications for the next reading brains. Thus equipped, we will have the capacity to help shape the changing reading circuits in our children and our children’s children in wiser and better-informed ways.

I invite you into my collected thoughts on reading and the evolving reading brain as I would a friend at my door—with equal parts anticipation and delight at our exchanges about what reading means, beginning with the story of how reading became so important to me. To be sure, when I was a child learning to read, I did not think about reading. Like Alice, I simply jumped down reading’s hole into Wonderland and disappeared for most of my childhood.

When I was a young woman, I did not think about reading. I simply became Elizabeth Bennet, Dorothea Brooke, and Isabel Archer at every opportunity. Sometimes I became men like Alyosha Karamazov, Hans Castorp, and Holden Caulfield. But always I was lifted to places very far from the little town of Eldorado, Illinois, and always I burned with emotions I could never otherwise have imagined.

Even when I was a graduate student of literature, I did not think very much about reading. Rather, I pored over every word, every encrypted meaning in the Duino Elegies by Rilke and novels by George Eliot and John Steinbeck, and felt myself bursting with sharpened perceptions of the world and anxious to fulfill my responsibilities within it.

[Can woolly bear caterpillars predict winter weather?]

I failed my first round at the latter miserably and memorably. With all the enthusiasm a young, flimsily prepared teacher can have, I began a Peace Corps-like stint in rural Hawaii along with a small and wonderful group of fellow would-be teachers. There I stood daily before 24 unutterably beautiful children. They looked at me with complete confidence, and we looked at each other with total, reciprocated affection. For a while those children and I were oblivious to the fact that I could change the circumstances of their life trajectories if I could help them become literate, unlike many in their families. Then, only then, did I begin to think seriously about what reading means. It changed the direction of my life.

With sudden and complete clarity I saw what would happen if those children could not learn the seemingly simple act of passage into a culture based on literacy. They would never fall down a hole and experience the exquisite joys of immersion in the reading life. They would never discover Dinotopia, Hogwarts, Middle Earth, or Pemberley. They would never wrestle through the night with ideas too large to fit within their smaller worlds. They would never experience the great shift that moves from reading about characters like the Lightning Thief and Matilda to believing they could become heroes and heroines themselves. And most important of all, they might never experience the infinite possibilities within their own thoughts that emerge whole cloth from each fresh encounter with worlds outside their own. I realized in a whiplash burst that those children, all mine for one year, might never reach their full potential as human beings if they never learned to read.

From that moment on, I began in earnest to think about reading’s capacity to change the course of an individual life. What I hadn’t a clue about then was the deeply generative nature of written language and what it means—literally and physiologically—for generating new thoughts, not only for a child but for our society. I also had no glimpse of the extraordinary cerebral complexity that reading involves and how the act of reading embodies as no other function the brain’s semi-miraculous ability to go beyond its original, genetically programmed capacities such as vision and language. That would come later, as it will in these letters. I revised my entire life plan, and moved from the love of written words to the science beneath them. I set out to understand how human beings acquire written words and use written language to great advantage for their own intellectual development and that of future generations.

Excerpted from Reader, Come Home. Copyright © 2018 by Maryanne Wolf. Re-printed here with permission of Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.

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About Marryanne Wolf

Maryanne Wolf is the author of Reader, Come Home and is the director of the Center for Dyslexia, Diverse Learners and Social Justice at UCLA.

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