Saturday, July 26, 2008

"Proust & the Squid": Reading and the Internet

Dr. Maryanne Wolf is concerned about the generation who has begun its reading life looking at text delivered to them, often from the Internet, via a computer screen rather than the printed page. As the Director of the Center for Reading and Language Research at Tufts University in Boston, she is doing high-tech research looking at the brain itself, to evaluate whether anecdotal reports about reduced attention spans and impatience with complexity are because our brains themselves are changing. Brains remain plastic throughout our lives. Are they physically adapting to a skimming style of reading? And if so, does this shift reduce our capacity to do what she calls "deep reading"?

She has written a book on this subject, called "Proust & the Squid: the Story and Science of the Reading Brain" (published in Canada by Harper Collins). Her work is also discussed in the Atlantic Monthly's "Is Google Making Us Stoopid?" which I discussed in my June 18 posting here: "An Article Worth Reading (All the Way Through)".

Her ideas seem to be getting mainstream attention. Last week, I heard an interview with her on CBC Radio One's popular "Sunday Edition". In the twenty minute conversation with Kevin Sylvester, she described how when she started writing "Proust and the Squid" her intention was to describe the "miraculous" deep reading process. When it comes to reading, she said, "the point of it all is to take what you read and then think and infer and gain insight. It is really beyond what a lot of people think about as 'just' reading. It's deep thinking .. and it takes place in one hundred to two hundred milliseconds. Over the eight years that she was writing the book "I had a completely different world on my hands". The effect of doing research using the vast amount of data streaming in from the Internet was resulting in a "skimming" reading style. "I was really beginning to worry that we were losing what we have. That it was trickling through our fingers ... not the older reader, but all that the younger reader was not necessarily going to do if their formation for reading was in the more superficial mode that is too often the case with the 'screen' kind of reading... By the end of the book I was filled with questions about what we don't know, and what we really need to be vigilant and do some very good and very sophisticated research on. What does that child who has really learned how to read as a 'screen reader'. What is the difference between that reader, and you, Kevin, who comes to the screen with a well-formed, critical, inferential reading kind of a mind?

"So I'm questioning whether the formation is going to lead us to have children who don't have the same kind of intrinsic 'pause button' that you and I have when we read and we know we have to go under the surface; don't assume anything; want to fill in the blanks; want to go back and check. There's a real critical -- and I use a term by a poet -- 'quality of attention' that we bring to reading because that's how we were formed. What I want to do is ... do research .. and see whether or not the strength of comprehension processes is altered... Reading is not natural in the sense that there is a genetic code that says it has to go this way. The Chinese reader is different from an English reader... [who]... is just a little bit different from a French reader ... So we certainly know we can form a different circuit. So my question and my concern ... is that we may be, without intention, giving rise to children who are more superficial and less analytical than you and I."

Her opinions have brought resistance. In her conversation she makes it clear that she, as a neural scientist who uses sophisticated technological tools to study the brain, is not a Luddite. Nor is she alone. She points to where the National Endowment for the Arts, using a different research basis is "coming to similar concerns" in their publication "To Read or Not To Read".

How to start addressing her concerns? She asks for "quality research" on this topic. And "close scrutiny" to "phasing-in technology... so before we know our answer, we won't have lost our kids. It's too important not to raise these concerns, even though I don't have the evidence. Because we have a lot of kids out there who are being shaped every single day of the year in ways that I think we've lost control over."


  1. I worry about the loss of 'deep reading' in my own life. It takes time to read. To actually sit down in a quiet space and to focus for a length of time on something that might need to be read slowly, thoughtfully and over and over a few times. It's not just the 'computer brain' that loses the knack for 'deep reading' but the lack of time and effort to give it light. Your blog is always interesting, Nancy.

  2. There is obviously a lot to know about this. I think you made some good points in Features also.

  3. Your blog keeps getting better and better! Your older articles are not as good as newer ones you have a lot more creativity and originality now keep it up!