One of the more subtle and profound of these problems has emerged as we continue to move away from a literacy- and word-based culture into a faster-paced digital and screen-based one. The way we read is changing.
Cognitive neuroscientist Maryanne Wolfe begins her book Reader, Come Home with an examination of the evolution of the reading brain. There are three essential facts, she explains, “Let’s begin with a deceptively simple fact…: human beings were never born to read. The acquisition of literacy is one of the most important epigenetic achievements of Homo Sapiens.” (Epigenetics studies how behaviors and environment can cause changes that affect the way our genes work.) The invention is only 6,000 years old, and when considered alongside other evolutionary changes, our ability to read developed in an incredibly short time. That’s due to the neuroplasticity of the brain and its ability to rewire circuits and reassign purpose to neurons that weren’t specifically designed for roles like reading. That short gestation period for reading circuits also includes the caution that epigenetic changes are reversible. Wolfe reminds us that the basic rule for neurons is use them or lose them, and that includes those neurons and circuits assigned to reading.
In their book, Evolving Ourselves, futurists Juan Enriquez and Steve Gullans point out, “We are in a different phase of evolution; the future of life is now in our hands. It is no longer just natural evolution, but human-driven evolution.” And what we create in tech can recreate us. Finally, a third fact is that our reading circuits are now dividing into two types: one for the established print-reading circuits and another for new digital circuits. This is creating a new, biliterate brain.
Until recently, according to Wolfe, little attention was paid to what happened “in the brains of children (or adults) as they learned to read while immersed in a digitally dominated medium six to seven hours a day.” Neuroscientists and educators are now closely examining the effects of reading in digital formats and the daily immersion in a variety of digital experiences—from social media to virtual games. In the atmosphere of perpetual distraction online, research is piling up that describes shallow reading that produces information but decreases comprehension and offers few or none of the benefits of the slower cognitive processes such as critical thinking, personal reflection, imagination, and empathy that are all part of deep reading, for which the original print-reading circuits were developed.
A CIRCUIT SOLEIL
Instead of chapters, Wolfe’s book is divided into nine letters addressed to the reader. The first is an overview of the problem of losing the deep-reading circuit. The last two address possible solutions (“Building a Biliterate Brain” and “Reader, Come Home”).
Early in the book, Wolfe uses a circus metaphor to describe the structure of the reading brain. When we read, it isn’t a small part of the brain that does the work, rather something like a five-ring circus (vision, language, cognition, motor, and affect) that includes, under the same tent, thousands upon thousands of neuronal working groups lighting up whenever you read a single word. The reading circuit incorporates input from two hemispheres, four lobes—frontal, temporal, parietal, and occipital—and all five layers of the brain from the uppermost telencephalon to the lower levels of the metencephalon and myelencephalon. In fact, all of that was firing and connecting as you read through these lines.
The overriding concern in the book centers around the deep-reading brain and the question, “Will the quality of our attention change as we read on media that advantage immediacy, dart-quick task switching, and continuous monitoring of distraction, as opposed to the more deliberate focusing of our attention?” If our digital reading brain circuit continues to demand most of our reading time, Wolfe asks, “Will the quality of attention in reading—the basis of the quality of our thought—change inexorably as our culture transitions away from a print-based culture toward a digital one?” It seems we’re all aware that this is happening, but do we know where it’s leading? Wolfe reminds us, “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.” The most advantageous path that we should take now, she advises, is to teach a new biliteracy to prepare our children and to “preserve [deep reading] in the present reading brain lest we lose something irreplaceable.”