The way we read is changing. There’s no wonder that much of our reading time takes place via screens. This fact alone has compelled many researchers to take a closer look into the effects that digital reading is having on our brains, for better or for worse. Initial findings are that comprehension is foregone for the sake of time, focus and concentration seem to to be improving and retention rates are lower.
We might want to take a closer look at this topic. A new Guardian article claims that “Skim Reading is the new normal. The effects on society are profound.”
As UCLA psychologist Patricia Greenfield writes, the result is that less attention and time will be allocated to slower, time-demanding deep reading processes, like inference, critical analysis and empathy, all of which are indispensable to learning at any age.
Increasing reports from educators and from researchers in psychology and the humanities bear this out. English literature scholar and teacher Mark Edmundson describes how many college students actively avoid the classic literature of the 19thand 20th centuries because they no longer have the patience to read longer, denser, more difficult texts. We should be less concerned with students’ “cognitive impatience,” however, than by what may underlie it: the potential inability of large numbers of students to read with a level of critical analysis sufficient to comprehend the complexity of thought and argument found in more demanding texts, whether in literature and science in college, or in wills, contracts and the deliberately confusing public referendum questions citizens encounter in the voting booth.
The possibility that critical analysis, empathy and other deep reading processes could become the unintended “collateral damage” of our digital culture is not a simple binary issue about print vs digital reading. It is about how we all have begun to read on any medium and how that changes not only what we read, but also the purposes for why we read. Nor is it only about the young. The subtle atrophy of critical analysis and empathy affects us all. It affects our ability to navigate a constant bombardment of information. It incentivizes a retreat to the most familiar silos of unchecked information, which require and receive no analysis, leaving us susceptible to false information and demagoguery.
Screens seem to be superior when it comes to information, print material much more capable of communicating wisdom and insights. There are significant costs and consequences to discounting the printed word’s value for learning and academic development. But there are solutions:
We need to cultivate a new kind of brain: a “bi-literate” reading brain capable of the deepest forms of thought in either digital or traditional mediums. A great deal hangs on it: the ability of citizens in a vibrant democracy to try on other perspectives and discern truth; the capacity of our children and grandchildren to appreciate and create beauty; and the ability in ourselves to go beyond our present glut of information to reach the knowledge and wisdom necessary to sustain a good society.