Deep reading: An endangered human activity

Cognitive neuroscientist Maryanne Wolf at the Falling Walls Conference in Berlin during the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall on November 9.

BERLIN, Germany—The human brain is an incredible work of science. According to scientists, it is estimated that the brain contains around 100 billion of neurons and controls everything that happens in our body. From actions to reactions, to simply storing a lot of information and solving problems, it is, perhaps, the most complicated system there is on Earth.

It is by far the only natural supercomputer that has a lot of mysteries yet to be solved, such as how it shapes the way people think and feel through reading.

Speaking at the Falling Walls Conference in Berlin during the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall on November 9, cognitive neuroscientist Maryanne Wolf explained how the quality of human thinking is greatly influenced by the quality of how people read.

“My work is studying the reading brain and how it is changing literally under our own fingertips. And my mission is to literally help you understand that literacy is a basic human right and that its changes have implications all the way to our democracy,” she said.

Wolf emphasized that reading is not just what one reads, but how one reads as well, because “literacy changes your brain, it changes the brain of a society and, ultimately, it changes our species.”

She explained the adverse effects of digital screen reading on children and on adults, as well.

Wolf said screen reading “short circuits reading” and “does not give time for inference, analogy, empathy, critical analysis and insight.”

The human brain system

Have you ever thought how the brain works when reading or when you read but nothing gets inside your brain?

Wolf explained to the BusinessMirror in an interview that the brain incorporates a lot of its parts when reading.

“The circuit that’s necessary for reading incorporates both the hemispheres of the brain, four lobes of each hemisphere and five layers of the brain, so you use the beautiful term that when the child learns to read is like having this fantastic playground,” she said,

She pointed out that many people have taken this system in the brain for granted “as if it is the easiest thing in the world.”

The cognitive neuroscientist explained that each human brain is unique. It takes around 280 milliseconds (ms) to pull together the visual, phonological and semantic process in the brain. (A millisecond is a thousandth of a second.)

Wolf added that putting all words together in one sentence, taking into consideration that all information is already there, happens in less than a second.

“Within 280 milliseconds, we’ve gotten a lot of information about the word. What happens next is that, as we usually do, we see that word in a sentence we have information before, and that we have to move on to the next piece of information, so our attention centers around 280 milliseconds that is actually helping us move on,” Wolf explained.

She added: “So we’ve kept the image of what we’ve just read in our short-term memory, and then we move around that point. If we are skimming, we just keep going. But if we aren’t skimming, if we are getting the whole consciousness and attention, then we are able to bring in, after 400 milliseconds, the more complicated processing. So that’s like inference, analogy, the critical and analytic processes.”

Wolf noted that the human brain uses its neural network groups which is the same during face and object recognition.

“Through the visual cortex, at the back in the lower left of the head, you see a face that you’ve known before, you’ve made a representation of a whole working group of neurons that is responsible for that face, and we use the same neurons to identify characters or letters,” Wolf said.

She emphasized that automatically identifying letters and characters is the same neural system the brain uses for facial and character recognition, hence, that allows people to recognize and identify words  immediately.

In her talk at the Falling Walls Conference, Wolf said, “The reality is that none of you were ever born to read. You were born to speak and see him [a person].”

She then cited how Chinese and Japanese speakers have more interesting right visual cortices. She said, “They usually have to have [learned] 5,000 characters by the time they’re in the fifth grade and we are complaining about 26 measly little letters [of the alphabet].”

This means that brains are unique from one another. “The reality, however, is that the brain, the models, gives us an indication that there is no one circuit. The circuit is plastic,” meaning it can be easily shaped or molded.

Deep reading vs skimming

MerRiam-Webster Dictionary defines skimming, with the root word skim, as to read, study or examine superficially and rapidly. It also means to pass swiftly or lightly over.

It, therefore, has a high contrast compared with deep reading and analyzing what one is reading.

“There is a great difference in being able to read at a level where you are decoding, you are putting all the letters and the sounds together, and you’re using very basic information about how that brain puts things together,” Wolf told the BusinessMirror.

She added that the truly elaborate brain takes years to form.

As each brain is unique, the processing and how it works depends on each person. There will always be fast readers and there will be slow readers.

“The same system that we use for facial or object recognition, is now being used to automatically identify letters and characters. It’s amazing and astonishing what we’ve done. So you make these representations and that is what allows us to do things automatically,” she explained.

Skimming is another situation. “If we are skimming, we just keep going,” without using these inferences and analytic processes, and just glance over characters, letters and words.

Skimming: Reading during the digital age

The new digital platform has definitely advanced the lives of humans in many different levels. But it has also drawn back or limited the capabilities of humans to think, decode and elaborate the brain’s functioning processes.

Wolf explained that the problem with technology “is that we regress to a very basic form of reading rather than use the entirety of this very sophisticated network.”

She added that interesting changes happen. She noted that it’s not because humans can’t use sophisticated processes and technology, rather “it’s the reading on a screen where it is transitory.”

Wolf said that this causes one to move faster, making the habit become skimming.

“When you skim, you are giving this basic circuit [the brain] a lot of information, you get fast and then you move on, and then the screen hastens you along but you don’t give the deeper processes time to work. So the technology is not the problem. The problem is that our circuit reflects the characteristics of the technology,” she said.

Wolf said it is for multitasking. It is “for doing things that don’t allow enough time for critical analysis.

“The No. 1 problem with screen [reading] is that it short circuits reading. It doesn’t give enough time for inference, analogy, empathy, critical analysis and insight,” she pointed out.

Books allow deep-learning processes

However, books are physical, real and concrete.

“You have a space, you are holding it [book or any printed material]. And that all adds to more sophisticated, more time demanding milliseconds of what I call deep-learning processes,” Wolf explained.

Dangers of digital skimming on children

The reading brain has no one shape. It is plastic, she said. By that plasticity, it allows the brain to go far beyond its basic circuitry of adding things that one will know “because human beings are analogy makers.”

Yet, the reality of today is that many people—especially children—have become reliant on technology.

Wolf cited in her lecture that every form of medium has its pros and cons, but “the digital medium has threats that we never realized until now.”

With technology, such as phones and tablets, Wolf noted that in eye movement research, eyes do a “Z” (zigzag) or an “F” movement of word spotting or browsing in front of the screen.

“The reality among our children is that they are often distracted 27 times per hour. Now, if you think about the circuit and the attention that you need to concentrate, it makes memory and consolidation of what we’re learning almost impossible,” Wolf said.

What interests her, she added, is what happens inside the brains of children “who do not have that formed expert-reading brain.”

Problems caused by distraction

Pediatric neurologists found out that after taking brain imaging of children who are being read to, they have better language development by the age of two.

“With older children, we’re seeing all kinds of differences in attention and how they are responding to what is basically continuous partial attention, and the repercussions of what everyone here knows when they go offline, they say, ‘What?’ What do our children say? ‘I’m bored’,” Wolf explained.

It is a human thing that the more distracted one person is, the less likely that one’s attention is focused.

“If your attention is not focused, it won’t be consolidated in memory. That’s a problem for kids. And it is a problem for us, too. Because when we skim, we’re less likely to capture important details that are important for understanding,” she said.

Kids understand better when reading from print

In a study mentioned in Wolf’s book titled, Reader, Come Home: The Reading Brain in a Digital World, she said that a study from 2000 and 2017 involving 171,000 young people from all over the world given the same task—to read the same story but in different mediums, print and screen.

The research showed that children who read through print understood the context better than those who read on screen.

Empathy formed through deep reading

It is important to note that, in a research at the Max Planck Institute by Tania Singer as mentioned by Wolf, empathy is also formed through deep, elaborative reading.

“You see [in this research] that empathy is not just a feeling but also about understanding the other. A theory of mind, critical analysis pulls together all of these analogical, inferential skills. This allows us, even if we are only talking about 200 milliseconds, to evaluate, to discern the truth value,” she said.

“Your right frontal and your left frontal [parts of the brain] do a dance when you’re evaluating the truth. We’re literally going back and forth. We’re trying to understand what is true or what is not. We are evaluators. When we do not have that, we are losing something precious and essential as citizens,” Wolf added.

She added that the less critical analysis and empathy there is, and that if readers are going only in concentrated avenues of information, “then we will have susceptibility, a vulnerability in our citizens to falsely raised hopes, falsely raised fears, [believe in] fake information and all the detritus of demagoguery.”

Yet, with all of the claims on how technology works the brain, Wolf told the BusinessMirror that her hope is to make a biliterate brain, “one that could literally do good things in either medium.”

The biggest wall, Wolf said, is a failure to understand that if people become ever more surface skimmers, “we will be literally susceptible to fake news, false news, false fears and demagogues. There is a direct connection between a skimming population who isn’t thinking about what they’re reading and their inability to judge truth, and, therefore, [unable to] chose their leaders wisely.”

Image credits: Falling Walls Berlin


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