Our Reading Brain

We know the value of face-to-face engagement. When it comes to other ways of learning, there’s growing evidence that our reliance on onscreen reading is hindering our comprehension and ability to connect with others.

As humans embraced literacy some 6,000 years ago, it changed a circuit in our brains, writes Maryanne Wolf in a recent article in The Guardian. That circuit evolved from decoding basic information, like the number of goats in our herd, she said, to our present and highly elaborate “reading brain.” Research from around the world suggests that our current digital-based reading behavior is changing our brains again — and as Wolf, director of the Center for Dyslexia, Diverse Learners, and Social Justice in the Graduate School of Education and Information Studies at UCLA, and other neuroscience researchers caution, it’s for the worse.

Wolf’s research shows that our “reading brain” has enabled the development of some of the intellectual and emotional processes that we most identify with as making us human, including “internalized knowledge, analogical reasoning, and inference; perspective-taking and empathy; critical analysis and the generation of insight.”

Wolf’s research, and findings from other studies, suggest that these essential “deep reading” processes don’t apply equally to digital modes of reading. “Multiple studies show that digital screen use may be causing a variety of troubling downstream effects on reading comprehension,” Wolf writes. She cites a study in Norway in which high-school students read the same short story — half of them on a Kindle, and the other half in paperback. Those who read in print scored higher in comprehension, particularly in their ability to reconstruct the details and chronological order of the plot.

One reason why: When we read digitally, we skim, according to studies conducted by Ziming Liu from San Jose State University. “When the reading brain skims like this, it reduces time allocated to deep reading processes,” Wolf writes. And when we skim, we may miss more than just the plot, including the deep reading processes that lead to critical thinking and empathy, she suggests.

Now is the time to “identify and redress the changes in how we read before they become entrenched,” Wolf writes. Further, “if we work to understand exactly what we will lose, alongside the extraordinary new capacities that the digital world has brought us,” she writes, “there is as much reason for excitement as caution.”

The implications for an industry that serves as the largest single source of adult education go beyond whether our event programs should be made available only in an app or in print. Organizations are extending their face-to-face conferences with primarily online, year-round education in a variety of channels. If they want the learning to stick — especially with complex topics — Wolf would likely advise them not to neglect printed materials.

Michelle Russell

Michelle Russell is editor in chief of Convene.