[15 December 2008]
Over several thousand years the human brain has been changed by the act of reading.
Our brains continue to evolve, and a number of scientific studies as well as popular nonfiction works are exploring this fascinating issue. Recently I read an accessible introduction to the subject by Maryanne Wolf, Director of the Center for Reading and Language Research at Tufts University. Her book, Proust and the Squid (2007), describes how the evolution of learning to read has helped to change the way humans think as a species.
The way we view and use textual information today has changed dramatically from the ancient clay tablets where Wolf begins her discussion. In her book she examines major shifts in literacy and the tools which make it possible to disseminate information, including electronic formats. What does it mean to be literate in today’s increasingly digital society? For me personally, reading online tends to be a more superficial process than sitting down for quality time with a novel.
It turns out that our brains actually do process text differently depending on the format, and just as Nicholas Carr pointed out in his provocative Atlantic magazine article, “Is Google Making us Stupid?”, of July/August 2008, some people are now finding that as they read more online, focusing on longer narratives becomes tougher.
The experience of reading varies dramatically between mediums. Is the way we process the information we read also changing, depending on the media in which we view text? As the next generation grows up immersed in digital text and spend little or no time reading traditional narratives, will the ability to follow traditional plot structure and character development become a skill of the past?