April 9, 2014

Is the way we read online hurting our capacity for deep reading?


shutterstock_145341127Are all of the hours we’re logging online – hopping from hyperlink to hyperlink, communicating in a never-ending cascade of 140-character chunks—harming our ability to read and comprehend anything more in-depth? In a story in the Washington Post, Michael S. Rosenwald investigates what he terms our “commitment problem;” our growing restlessness with anything that takes more than a few minutes to read.

Speaking with a few representative readers, Rosenwald heard some troubling things: “I give it a few seconds—not even minutes—and then I’m moving again;” “When you try to read a novel, it’s almost like we’re not built to read them anymore, as bad as that sounds;” “The students no longer will or are perhaps incapable of dealing with the convoluted syntax and construction of George Eliot and Henry James;” and this doozy: “In a book, there are no graphics or links to keep you on track.” Rosenwald spoke to some cognitive neuroscientists, and they’re worried.

Humans, they warn, seem to be developing digital brains with new circuits for skimming through the torrent of information online. This alternative way of reading is competing with traditional deep reading circuitry developed over several millennia. “I worry that the superficial way we read during the day is affecting us when we have to read with more in-depth processing,” said Maryanne Wolf, a Tufts University cognitive neuroscientist and the author of “Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain.”

Wolf claims that, noticing a difference in her own habits, she actually had to retrain herself to read books. Trying to read The Glass Bead Game by Herman Hesse was a problem. “‘I’m not kidding: I couldn’t do it,’ she said. ‘It was torture getting through the first page. I couldn’t force myself to slow down so that I wasn’t skimming, picking out key words, organizing my eye movements to generate the most information at the highest speed. I was so disgusted with myself.’” Wolf goes on to compare the rise of cable TV and its subsequent sound bites with the rise of “eye bytes,” those little nuggets that hold our information just long enough to skim and move on, without providing any real context or sustenance. Research has shown that comprehension and learning is achieved better from a printed page than from a screen. This all sounds like bad news for the “iPad Dad” and his kids, but what about for the rest of us?

Researchers say that the differences between text and screen reading should be studied more thoroughly and that the differences should be dealt with in education, particularly with school-aged children. There are advantages to both ways of reading. There is potential for a bi-literate brain.


Julia Fleischaker is the director of marketing and publicity at Melville House.