A cognitive neuroscientist considers the effect of digital media on the brain.
In this epistolary book, Wolf (Director, Center for Reading and Language Research/Tufts Univ.; Tales of Literacy for the 21st Century, 2016, etc.) draws on neuroscience, psychology, education, philosophy, physics, physiology, and literature to examine the differences between reading physical books and reading digitally. Access to written language, she asserts, is able “to change the course of an individual life” by offering encounters with worlds outside of one’s experiences and generating “infinite possibilities” of thought. She is worried, however, that digital reading has altered “the quality of attention” from that required by focusing on the pages of a book. Researchers have found that “sequencing of information and memory for detail change for the worse when subjects read on a screen.” Reading digitally, individuals skim through a text looking for key words, “to grasp the context, dart to the conclusions at the end, and, only if warranted, return to the body of the text to cherry-pick supporting details.” This process, Wolf asserts, is unlike the deep reading of complex, dense prose that demands considerable effort but has aesthetic and cognitive rewards. Physicality, she writes, “proffers something both psychologically and tactilely tangible.” The author cites Calvino, Rilke, Emily Dickinson, and T.S. Eliot, among other writers, to support her assertion that deep reading fosters empathy, imagination, critical thinking, and self-reflection. The development of “critical analytical powers and independent judgment,” she argues convincingly, is vital for citizenship in a democracy, and she worries that digital reading is eroding these qualities. Borrowing a phrase from historian Robert Darnton, she calls the current challenge to reading a “hinge moment” in our culture, and she offers suggestions for raising children in a digital age: reading books, even to infants; limiting exposure to digital media for children younger than 5; and investing in teaching reading in school, including teacher training, to help children “develop habits of mind that can be used across various mediums and media.”
An accessible, well-researched analysis of the impact of literacy.