On the Net

Deep Reading

by James Patrick Kelly


Of the many skills that you’ve learned over the years, one in particular is important to our relationship, dear reader. And we do have a very intimate relationship, if you don’t mind my saying so. You see, my thoughts, as embedded in the sentences that I’m typing at this moment, will become your thoughts in the not-too-distant future. Briefly perhaps; it’s likely that they will slide into your short-term memory and then slip away www.verywellmind.com/what-is-short-term-memory-2795348 like the memory of what you ate for lunch last Tuesday, or who won the Hugo awards in 2012, or the names of the kids who came to your seventh birthday party. But for a few seconds at least, my thoughts will become yours.

Reading and writing, our arcane system of symbolic telepathy, was invented in stages over many centuries, as Denise Schmandt-Besserat https://sites.utexas.edu/dsb/ discusses in her excellent survey, The Origins of Writing https://sites.utexas.edu/dsb/tokens/the -evolution-of-writing. Neither is an easy skill to acquire. We tend to forget that illiteracy was once the norm for homo sapiens sapiens; any number of important historic figures couldn’t read. The vast majority of the peoples of the ancient world, including many of the pharaohs of Egypt, the Aztec rulers, and the royals of Mesopotamia, were illiterate, as were William the Conqueror https://www.biography.com/royalty/william-the-conqueror and Gheghis Khan https://www.historyextra.com/period/medieval/the-brutal-brilliance-of-genghis-khan/. Great teachers like Muhammad http://www.lastprophet.info/was-muhammad-illiterate and Saint Peter https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Saint_Peter couldn’t read. Blind Homer https://www.theguardian.com/books/2004/may/16/classics.highereducation, if he actually existed, was unable to write down the tales he is remembered for. And while there is some debate as to whether Socrates www.ancient.eu/socrates could read, he certainly was no advocate for literacy. In the Phaedrus dialogue www.gutenberg.org/cache/epub/1636/pg1636.txt he warns of the dangers of teaching the young to read: “In fact, it will introduce forgetfulness into the soul of those who learn it: they will not practice using their memory because they will put their trust in writing, which is external and depends on signs that belong to others, instead of trying to remember from the inside, completely on their own. . . . Your invention will enable them to hear many things without being properly taught, and they will imagine that they have come to know much while for the most part they will know nothing.”

At least, that’s what Plato www.ancient. eu/plato says he said.

Jumping ahead to the present day, while the world literacy rate hovers around 86 percent, that still means that some 757 million of our fellow citizens of Earth would be unable to read this sentence, according to Project Literacy www.projectliteracy.com. Here in the US, 32 million people are unable to read and write; we’re just 125th among all nations in literacy www.worldatlas.com/articles/the-highest-literacy-rates-in-the-world.html, behind the likes of Turkmenistan (22), Bosnia (60), and Venezuela (90).

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Thank goodness that you, dear reader, are among the fortunate majority who can read. But have you ever wondered how acquiring that splendid skill has changed your brain from that of your Bronze Age ancestors? Or how reading has rewired your synapses from the time you struggled through Hop on Pop www.youtube.com/watch?v=uEKPJKiwM6o to when you read Bob Silverberg’s column here, just a few minutes ago?

Because your brain does change over time. Alas, it now looks as though you probably haven’t grown many new neurons www.scientificamerican.com/article/does-the-adult-brain-really-grow-new-neurons since you reached adulthood. However, research into neuroplasticity www.scitechconnect.elsevier.com/what-is-brain-plasticity-why-so-important over the last thirty years demonstrates that there is continuous change to your cortical maps www.sciencedirect.com/topics/veterinary-science-and-veterinary-medicine/cortical-map, or the ways your brain is organized, in response to your daily experiences. This is how habits are formed. It’s how you can pick up a smattering of Hungarian at any age, or learn how to craft what you need in Minecraft https://minecraft.net/en-us or recover function after a stroke www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/ pmc/articles/PMC2818208. And revisions to your cortical maps can happen quickly, in a matter of months, according to some studies www.jneurosci.org/content/26/23/6314.

Which brings me to something that has been worrying me recently. I’ve noticed changes in my reading abilities. Perhaps you have as well. Researchers tell us that our reading maps are constantly being revised in reaction to our evolving digital environment. For instance, have you ever heard of the “F pattern”? In 2006 web usability researchers at the Neilsen Norman Group www.nngroup.com conducted a ground-breaking eye-tracking study and discovered that you tend to skim a web page in a pattern that roughly resembles an F www.nngroup.com/articles/f-shaped-pattern-reading-web-content. Say you’ve just done a Google search: You scan the entire top line left to right, drop down to the second and scan as much of that as you care to, then quickly drop your gaze down the left hand side looking for any other interesting bits. That behavior, part utilitarian, part learned, can transfer onto other web pages and even to print reading. If you don’t think that web designers have embraced the F pattern, check out What is the F-Pattern and How to Use It for Increased Conversions https://instapage.com/blog/f-pattern-layout. Modern life demands that we spend a lot of time looking at screens https://sites.psu.edu/ist110pursel/2018/02/21/americans-devout-more-than-10-hours-a-day-to-screen-time-and-growing, and this super-efficient skimming technique can help us get to the good stuff faster.

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But at what cost? Maryanne Wolf www.maryannewolf.com is known for her work in cognitive neuroscience and developmental psycholinguistics. She is also a gifted writer; I can recommend her latest book, Reader, Come Home, the Reading Brain in the Digital World www.amazon.com/Reader-Come-Home-Reading-Digital/dp/0062388789. You can get a taste of her research in Skim reading is the new normal. The effect on society is profound www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/aug/25/skim-reading-new-normal-maryanne-wolf. Wolf argues that the cortical maps that develop from learning to read print allow for “analogical reasoning, and inference; perspective-taking and empathy; critical analysis and the generation of insight.” She calls these deliberative features “deep reading.” Researchers around the world have been looking at how we read across all media and their findings show that screen reading yields a different array of cognitive results than reading from the page.

For example, the National Science Foundation funded a 2017 study https://news.psu.edu/story/496317/2017/12/05/research/reading-electronic-devices-may-interfere-science-reading that found that adults who regularly read from screens had significantly more trouble comprehending a series of science articles than those who used digital devices less frequently. Ping Li, who authored the study, said, “There are a lot of positive uses for electronic devices and I’m an advocate of digital learning, but when it comes to understanding of science concepts through reading, our take is that it’s not helpful.” Another study www.psyc.jmu.edu/ug/features/etextbooks.html comparing student reactions to e-textbooks and print textbooks found that learning from e-textbooks was harder and took the students longer to reach the same level of understanding, even in a controlled lab environment. Eye-scanning revealed “the scanning pattern produced when the student read a textbook showed consistent reading from line to line down the page. But the scanning pattern from reading on the screen was less intense.” And here’s a European study www.theguardian.com/books/2014/aug/19/readers-absorb-less-kindles-paper-study-plot-ereader-digitisation that finds that Kindle readers were less able to remember key events in a mystery story than print readers. Believe me when I say that this particular finding sends a thrill of fear to all the hard-working plotters who publish in these pages!

But these studies need to been read in context, as a paper by The Dana Foundation points out in The Truth About Research on Screen Time www.dana.org/Briefing_Papers/The_Truth_About_Research_on_Screen_Time. A judgmental rejection of screen reading, particularly by parents of young children who are acquiring this fundamental skill, has yet to be justified by the research. Many of the current studies are survey-based, and reflect correlation rather than causality. And when we say that Americans spend more than ten hours looking at screens every day, what exactly does that mean? Is reading the New York Times or Asimov’s on a Kindle the same as watching the NFL or The Big Bang Theory on television or playing Fortnight or Super Mario on a gaming console? The research into the effects of screen time on the reading brain is just beginning, according to neuroscientist Abigail Baird. “We can’t say with any certainty that new technology is bad for brains. The only thing we can really say is that it’s a new experience for brains. Because of what we have come to understand about neuroplasticity, we now know that most experiences make changes to the brain—and that includes technology. But I don’t know that we’re even close to understanding whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing or maybe even just a neutral thing.”

While Maryanne Wolf is concerned that attenuation of our deep reading processes could become the unintended “collateral damage” of our digital culture, she is not calling for a wholesale retreat from screen reading. “We possess both the science and the technology to identify and redress the changes in how we read before they become entrenched. If we work to understand exactly what we will lose, alongside the extraordinary new capacities that the digital world has brought us, there is as much reason for excitement as caution.”

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Longtime readers may recall that in columns I wrote during the first days of the ebook (2001-04) I was an unabashed cheerleader for the coming digital print revolution. That should come as no surprise; one of the reasons I got this gig in the first place is that I’m an early-adopting technophile. And I have no regrets for predicting here that ebooks would change publishing—because that happened. Big time!

I will note that my enthusiasm tempered over time. For instance, in 2011 I devoted several columns to Nicholas Carr’s prescient The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains www.nicholascarr.com/?page_id=16. In my exit from one of those columns, “New Brains for Old,” I wrote, “We don’t know whether our new brains will be better than the old ones. What we do know is that they are constantly adapting to the cognitive environment we live in. Maybe it’s time to take charge of that environment? Otherwise it’s definitely going to mess with our heads.”

Dear reader, it has messed with my head. I can no longer give unpublished manuscripts their proper and thorough reading, either my own or those of my writer pals or students, unless I print hardcopy. And I absolutely refuse to read a novel from a screen; the telepathy just doesn’t work anymore. In fact, I have some difficulty reading novels on the page, although I still enjoy stories in print. These days I much prefer listening to books; almost all my pleasure reading is audio. What’s the attraction? Well, the performances, that’s for sure. But more important?

I can’t skim an audiobook.

Copyright © 2019 James Patrick Kelly

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