The medium is the message. For the neurology of reading, this maxim is made more precise: the medium is the shaper of the mind.
The current work is such a great gift, especially for readers who have read Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain (published in 2008). Revisiting the mind of Professor Maryanne Wolf is like sitting with a reassuring old friend whom you've not met in a long while but who is never far from your thoughts. Reader, Wardah's slogan 'The secret gift of reading is time' is directly inspired by Proust and the Squid.
In our transition to digital culture, we are changing in ways that have unintended collateral consequences, chief among them is that our children are deprived of living in a world built on literacy. In our rush to access information ever faster, do we know what we are giving up? Have we sold the soul of reading to gain lightning access to terabytes of information? Have we not unwittingly made a Faustian pact?
Our brains are hardwired to give attention to things that are new, changeable and changing. This is known as novelty bias. While this may in the jungle help us avoid danger or in business to seize opportunities, in the digital age this bias has been capitalised to full effect by the attention merchants. We are bombarded with new stimuli that are designed to keep us hooked on digital media. Behaviours that involve multi-tasking and multiple distraction reward the brain because of novelty bias. Part of the challenge of parents and educators today is to make the young realise that there are bigger long-term rewards for sustained attention and learning.
But for young children, novelty bias in the digital age has even more dire consequences. There is a region in the brain known as the prefrontal cortex that is responsible for the executive control of attention and cognitive processes. This executive control helps us pay attention and supports attention by evaluating and resisting distraction. The prefrontal cortex is under-developed in young children and they are thus literally powerless to resist digital media. Once this is habituated, who knows what will happen when the child enters adolescence and adulthood. The notion of iPad as pacifier just got a whole lot more sinister. Stanley Kubrick said: "We should not worry so much that the computer becomes too much like us, but that we become too much like computers."
Older children and adults are already reporting difficulties with attention and distraction when they attempt to read seriously. In this environment, reading can only be about information and/or entertainment and this has spill-over effects in education. Education will become about information and entertaining spectator one-upmanship, no longer about how one is supposed to live one's life (never mind about the next life). Even now, teachers report that any reading that does occur in schools is erratic and cursory. One wonders how this will affect the quality of writing in future masters dissertations and doctoral theses.
So what do we do?
We need to 'come home' to active and attentive reading that Wolf has termed deep reading. And to understand deep reading, we need to unpack the following three terms: cognitive patience, background knowledge, and empathy.
The critical relationship between the quality of thought and the quality of reading is thoroughly influenced by the quality of attention. Contemporary readers do not have patience for long complicated text (TL;DR) with its complex sentence structures and multiple clauses. While present-day readers find the Classics and Scripture frustrating, readers of just a generation ago found beauty, truth, and meaning in what they read. The texts are the same but the readers have changed. They now lack cognitive patience.
Our background knowledge determines what benefit we may derive from reading. Those who have read widely – and well – will have more resources to apply, understand, and synthesise what they read. To synthesise is to adjudicate new information. If you are less well read – you have a lower ability to adjudicate and are therefore more likely to be swayed by misinformation (read FAKE NEWS). Further, you run the risk of synthesising information without questioning, prioritisation, and interrogation.
Albert Einstein said, "Our theories of the world determine what we see." If we rely on external repositories of knowledge such as Google and Wikipedia, we are less able to have the necessary background knowledge to synthesise new information (because the background knowledge is not internal to us). We are also less able to make connections with what we know, and to make analogies and inferences. In addition, the existence of external storehouses of infinite knowledge lowers the motivation to learn, rehearse, and retain information for ourselves. As a consequence, we develop an apathy to learning. Deep reading helps us internalise facts, information, and ideas by putting these things into the context of our own background knowledge. As Wolf conveys eloquently: "Deep reading is always about connection: connecting what we know to what we read, what we read to what we feel, what we feel to what we think, and how we think to how we live out our lives in a connected world."
Deep reading trains us to perceive, analyse, and interpret the thoughts and feelings of others. It is not just to feel compassion and warm and fuzzy about the Other. When we read, we experience another life, another viewpoint, another religion. It is an incalculable gift. It is the best antidote to the rising culture of indifference and xenophobia.
But won't active reading with its underlining, annotations, and cross-referencing slow down one's reading. Of course it does. And that is exactly the point. In order to benefit from reading one really needs to spend the time immersed in the text and swim among its ideas and concepts.
But Reader, the text is not the end. It is the beginning of a journey beyond.
Wolf speaks about a step beyond deep reading and this is to read for reflection and contemplation. She writes: "The reflective life of reading in which – whatever genre we are reading – we enter a totally invisible, personal realm where we contemplate all manner of human existence and ponder a universe whose real mysteries dwarf any of our imagination."
Reflection and contemplation helps us realise our true selves as meditative beings. It is to enter into a world of quiet, captivated joy amidst a noisy distracted time.
Now isn't that something to come home to.
Reader, Come Home: The Reading Brain in a Digital World