“We were never born to read”

Photo: Ron Searcey

Maryanne Wolf is the Director of the Center for Dyslexia, Diverse Learners, and Social Justice at the UCLA Graduate School of Education and Information Studies. An internationally renowned cognitive neuroscientist and dyslexia specialist, her research and writing revolve around global literacy and the effects of the digital age on our reading abilities. In our interview, she talks about how she almost lost her ability for “deep  reading” – and how she overcame it.

Falling Walls: Ms. Wolf, I used to be a huge reader up until my twenties. These days, I find it increasingly hard to finish any longer book. Did I use my ability to read properly?

Maryanne Wolf: In my latest book “Reader, Come Home”, I tell why I felt the same not too long ago. I tried to re-read Hermann Hesses “Das Glasperlenspiel”, one of my all-time favorites. The experiment was both a terrible failure and a success, because I could not read the book the way I could before. It was all too dense, everything was too much. I was struck by how little I could become immersed. The reason is that I was reading this amazing book at the same speed I usually read on a screen. I was superimposing the mode of skim reading onto an inappropriate medium. You and me both have slipped, like most society, into a mode of reading that is most efficient for ten hours of our day, but not for what I call deep reading.

Falling Walls: Why is deep reading so important?

Wolf: Deep reading is the source of some of our most important thinking, especially critical analysis and empathy: how well do we enter the alternative perspective of others? This experience of “passing over”, as it has been called, comes from neural networks in our brain that we use for empathy and compassion. If we read, we literally leave ourselves, our myopic ego, for precious minutes to understand others. Unfortunately, we are no longer allocating as much time to those very important, empathetic and reflective processes.

Falling Walls: Let’s talk more about these neural networks: What actually happens in our brain when we read?

Wolf: We were never born to read. We were given a genetic program for language, for vision, for the olfactory system, for touch and cognition. But not for reading. Reading is a human invention and as such, it requires the brain to fashion a new circuit for itself. What the brain does, is to build a network that connects the parts needed for reading. It maps our attention to the vision of certain letters and symbols, to their sounds and their meaning, to their syntactic functions. The more complex it gets, the more neurons are needed. How this circuit is created, depends on the language, how you learn to read, and on your life as a reader. That circuit also reflects the medium you are using, may it be a book or a screen. So if the medium says “fast, fast, fast”, your circuit is using only the parts necessary for fast processing.

Falling Walls: So reading a book is different from reading on a screen?

Wolf: The book, or rather print, has a set of processes that slow you down. You are allocating more time to each word and each sentence. You are not as likely to use this “F-Pattern” in which you read one line at the top, some in the middle and then you move down. It is not that we cannot think while we’re on the screen, but the medium gives advantages to certain processes and disadvantages to others. The digital screen, especially the internet, is accentuating multitasking by furcation of attention. This has effects on how we understand what we read, remember what we read and feel what we read. The more time you give to these deep reading processes, the easier it is to remember and sequence information. Think about the screen: you don’t go back, even though you can. That is called recursion and that is what a book is advantaging: you will actually remember where you saw something on the page. On a digital screen, it’s evanescent, constantly moving forward.

If we read, we literally leave ourselves, our myopic ego, for precious minutes to understand others

Falling Walls: And the more we read on a screen, the harder it becomes to properly read a book?

Wolf: It bleeds over from one format or medium to another. The same things that causes us to skim on the screen will automatically do that when we go to a book now. We are, after all, creatures of habit.

Falling Walls: Is there a way out?

Wolf: I forced myself to read every night for twenty minutes. To the end of about two weeks, I was back into my style of reading that allows me to become immersed. It took me what I call cognitive patience. We all don’t have the same level of cognitive patience that we used to have since we are on the screen. But I found that if I could read at night, after my dinner, after the day is done, and devote about an hour to reading, and then wake up with a book, this has improved my whole day. I feel very much that we are not a lost cause.

Falling Walls: What about children? Are they especially at risk of losing their deep reading ability?

Wolf: A huge part of my work is about children and I work with pediatricians on guidelines and proposals. Research suggests that we should not give our children digital devices in the first year and a half to two years. After that, from two to five, it should be gradual but by no means dominating. Instead, from the age of three months on, the parents or caretakers should read to the child from a book. The beauty of a book for children is that it is haptic, they are touching it, eating it. You can’t eat a Kindle.

Falling Walls: Is there research that shows the “superiority of books”?

Wolf: People who study cortisol levels found higher cortisol levels in children, because they appear to be in this constant “fight or flight” mode. A colleague of mine, a pediatric neurologist, looked at mothers who read to their children from a book versus the same stories as audio versus the same story in an animated fashion. Three mediums, same material. What he found is that reading with a human is better for activating the language regions in the brain. The same phenomenon is found in young adults and adolescents, most of which are digital natives by now. The Norwegian psychologist Anne Mangen, found similar effects of reading comprehension throughout different mediums in high school students. There are many more studies showing the same results: reading a physical book leads to the best comprehension, whether you grew up a digital native or not.

Falling Walls: Should we ditch our digital devices then?

Wolf: I am not saying that you cannot have deep reading on a screen. These devices are incredibly important and enable things like programming, coding, and information. I could not work without a screen and neither could you. I am not against technology by any means, I am just saying that you are more likely to skim read on a screen. Most important, you do not allocate sufficient time to thinking about what you are reading. But time is necessary to discern the truth value of what you read.

Reading a physical book leads to the best comprehension, whether you grew up a digital native or not

Falling Walls: We are thinking less critically while reading on screen?

Wolf: The implication is that we, as citizens of democracy, can become so inundated by information that we become skimmers not just of what we are reading. Because of this information bombardment, we are choosing to read things that are familiar, that enforce what we already think. It is the paradox of the internet. With all this information available, one would think that we are reading different perspectives all the time. Instead, people go into their little silos. One of the biggest problems today is that people become susceptible to falsehood, to fake news, fake hopes and fears.

Falling Walls: Reading seems to be an almost political act then.

Wolf: It is certainly not all about the medium and how people are reading. But it contributes to divisiveness if you are only watching one kind of news or reading one set of information. Losing our ability for deep reading has many implications for democracy. That is why we should put more effort into conserving it. We need to find a way to combine the advantages of the digital world while not giving up on our ability for deep reading, empathy and critical thought.

Interview by: Eike Kühl

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