The way many people read today — tapping, skimming, swiping – is affecting how well we process and remember information, says a neuroscientist who studies digital reading.
Maryanne Wolf, author of Reader Come Home: the Reading Brain in a Digital World, says constantly processing snippets of text and video is reducing our ability to think deeply about all content. She said people who are overwhelmed with information devote less intellectual effort to reading carefully. In an essay for Harvard’s Nieman Foundation, Wolf said that people need to pull back from “the incessant need to fill every millisecond with new information.”
As an experiment, she reread a book, a piece of literature that she had thoroughly enjoyed in college. The second time, she found the book dense and too complicated and could no longer concentrate on the material long enough to think carefully about it.
Over many years, humans develop expert brain circuitry that allows them to read, evaluate the information, connect it to what they already know, and raise questions about its authenticity and about alternative perspectives. This is called “deep reading.” But sound bites and text bites reflect a culture that has become too distracted by and too drawn to the next piece of new information. Consequently, people don’t allow themselves to think, Wolf said.
She urges people to allocate time for careful thinking by reading a novel or by going to a quiet space and contemplating. Deeper reading allows you to immerse yourself, critically analyze the material, understand the perspectives of other, and empathize with people you read about, be they news makers or characters in a novel.
Processing information quickly, scanning, word-spotting, not only lead to bad reading habits but affect the brain’s ability to read and think.
Wolf is not alone in her research. A study in the U.K. found that readers using Kindles performed “significantly” worse than paperback readers at recalling when events occurred in a mystery story. The study also found that people reading paper pages scored higher than iPad readers on questions relating to how they empathized with characters and how well they remembered the story line.