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From paper to pixels

The troubling impact of digital reading

Created date

April 23rd, 2015
Neuroscientist and author Maryanne Wolf
Neuroscientist and author Maryanne Wolf

In 2000, cognitive neuroscientist Maryanne Wolf began work on a book, Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain (Harper Perennial, 2008), in which she explored the origins and development of our unique ability to communicate through the written word. Using MRI technology, she performed scans of test subjects as they read to see exactly what went on in their heads.

After seven years of research and writing, Wolf was shocked to learn that everything she thought she knew about the subject no longer applied. In this relatively short span, the reading brain had actually changed.

“I thought I was finished writing the book in 2007,” recalls Wolf, a professor at Tufts University in Boston, Mass. “But by the time I wrapped things up, it was like I was Rip Van Winkle—everything had shifted; the brain’s reading circuit had been altered.”

More specifically, it appears that the way people read, absorb, and process text is continually evolving in a manner that has experts like Wolf quite concerned.

Shift from linear to zigzag

Reading is a fundamentally linear sequential process. That is, the reader starts at the beginning and, moving from left to right, line by line, methodically makes his or her way through a logical string of information.

While such an explanation may seem elementary, even pedantic, the reality is that this basic, age-old procedure no longer stands in a digital world where text has moved from paper to pixels. 

“The new norm in reading is skimming, word spotting, and browsing on a screen,” explains Wolf. “Rather than reading in a linear sequential manner, people nowadays read in a zigzag fashion. They skim, read a little, and skim some more.”

The problem, according to Wolf and many other scientists, is the random information access that the Internet offers. 

Consider, for a moment, the content of an online news article. In the midst of flashing advertisements and dropdown menus, the reader typically encounters a body of text loaded with tantalizingly distracting links to related stories. 

Once a simple matter of moving forward, line by line, reading in the new digital realm can take people in any number of directions. Wolf and her colleagues are beginning to see the consequences.

Impact on attention span

A recent Lloyd’s of London study on mental focus found that the average attention span currently hovers at around five minutes—half of what it was just ten years ago. As Wolf further notes, people shift their attention more than 20 times an hour while using digital devices.

In her opinion, there’s no turning back from this trend.

“We’re in the middle of a transition from a print-based literary culture to a digital culture, and the digital medium is a Pandora’s box, a genie that’s out of the bottle,” she insists. “My big question as a researcher in this field is: How can we gain from this digital culture and, at the same time, preserve the reading brain as it has existed for so many generations?”

Unfortunately, an answer will be slow in coming, in part, because the problem runs deeper than mere habit alone. 

Indeed, the brain consists of two hemispheres, four lobes, and five layers, and the reading circuit utilizes all of them. Researchers don’t know how or to what extent this circuit has changed with our move to digital media, but they know for sure that it has.

As for the potential long-term consequences, Wolf says they could include everything from decreased literacy and attention span to memory loss. 

Weighing risks versus benefits

“We’re always talking about how much the digital medium has to offer,” she states, “and it does have a lot to offer us. But think about what you don’t have: the physicality that paper affords and the immersion that occurs as a result; the distraction-free page layout, which undoubtedly benefits concentration.”

And with the added benefit of focus—which is no small thing when it comes to reading—audiences can effectively digest lengthier, more sophisticated compositions. On digital devices, e-readers included, such writing has taken a hit.

“We’re already seeing the effects of digital reading—we’re losing complexity, density, and length,” Wolf stresses. “Without linear sequential reading, everything about the way writers approach a topic will have to be simpler. In the long-run, I think we have to be vigilant about what is at stake here, about what could be lost.”