My first inklings of the high stakes involved in the reading circuit’s plasticity began more than a decade ago, when I launched forth on what I thought would be a relatively circumscribed task: a researcher’s account of reading’s contributions to human development in my book Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain. My original intention was to describe the great arc of literacy’s development and provide a new conceptualization of dyslexia that would describe the cerebral riches that are often wasted when people do not understand individuals whose brains are organized for language in a different way.
But something unexpected happened as I wrote that book: Reading itself changed. What I knew as a cognitive neuroscientist and developmental psychologist about the development of written language had begun to shift before my eyes and under my fingers and under everybody else’s, too. In the seven years it had taken me to describe how the brain had learned to read over its close to 6,000-year history, our entire literacy-based culture had begun its transformation into a very different, digitally based one.
I was gobsmacked. There was almost no research being conducted then on the formation of a digital reading brain. There were no significant studies about what was happening 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 (a figure that has since almost doubled for many of our youth). I knew how reading changes the brain and how the brain’s plasticity enables it to be shaped by external factors such as a particular writing system (for example, English versus Chinese). Now I became consumed with how the circuitry of the reading brain would be altered by the unique characteristics of the digital medium, particularly in the young.
The unnatural, cultural origin of literacy — the first deceptively simple fact about reading — means that young readers do not have a genetically based program for developing such circuits. Reading-brain circuits are shaped and developed by both natural and environmental factors, including the medium in which reading is acquired and developed. Each reading medium advantages certain cognitive processes over others. Translation: The young reader can either develop all the multiple deep-reading processes that are currently embodied in the fully elaborated, expert reading brain; or the novice reading brain can become “short-circuited” in its development; or it can acquire whole new networks in different circuits. There will be profound differences in how we read and how we think, depending on which processes dominate the formation of the young child’s reading circuit.
Will young digital readers develop a range of very different brain circuits? If so, what will be the implications of those different circuits for our society?
This leads us to the present moment and the difficult, more specific questions that arise for children raised within a digital milieu. Will new readers develop the more time-demanding cognitive processes nurtured by print-based mediums as they absorb and acquire new cognitive capacities emphasized by digital media? For example, will the combination of reading on digital formats and daily immersion in a variety of digital experiences — from social media to virtual games — impede the formation of the slower cognitive processes, such as critical thinking, personal reflection, imagination, and empathy, that are all part of deep reading? Will the mix of continuously stimulating distractions on children’s attention and immediate access to multiple sources of information give young readers less incentive either to build their own storehouses of knowledge or think critically for themselves?
In other words, through no intention on anyone’s part, will the increasing reliance of our youth on the servers of knowledge prove the greatest threat to the young brain’s building of its own foundation of knowledge, as well as to a child’s desire to think and imagine for him- or herself? Or will these new technologies provide the best, most complete bridge yet to ever more sophisticated forms of cognition and imagination that will allow our children to leap into new worlds of knowledge that we can’t even conceive of in this moment of time? Will they develop a range of very different brain circuits? If so, what will be the implications of those different circuits for our society? Will the very diversity of such circuits benefit everyone? Can an individual reader consciously acquire various circuits, much like bilingual speakers who read different scripts?
There is now emerging research from Europe, Israel, and the United States that is demonstrating worrisome differences in children and young adults when reading on print versus digital mediums. Studies on ages from elementary school students to young adults indicate that the slower, more time-demanding processes involved in comprehension and attention to details are adversely affected when reading the same content on digital mediums. Israeli researcher Tami Katzir finds these differences in comprehension in children as young as fourth grade. Norwegian researcher Anne Mangen pinpoints differences in how older students sequence the details of plot, which can go missing when reading at a more surface level. The issues that are emerging cannot be subsumed into a binary print versus digital conceptualization. Rather, they are essential to understand in order to illumine what students (and, indeed, all of us) need to know when we choose to read on any medium.
The implications of our reading brain’s plasticity are neither simple nor transient. The connections between how and what we read and what is written are critically important to today’s society. In a milieu that continuously confronts us with a glut of information, the great temptation for many is to retreat to familiar silos of easily digested, less dense, less intellectually demanding information. The illusion of being informed by a daily deluge of eye-byte-size information can trump the critical analysis of our complex realities. In my work, I confront these issues head-on and discuss how a democratic society depends on the undeterred use of these critical capacities and how quickly they can atrophy in each of us unnoticed.
Kurt Vonnegut compared the role of the artist in society to that of the canary in the mines: Both alert us to the presence of danger. The reading brain is the canary in our minds. We would be the worst of fools to ignore what it has to teach us.