April 7, 2014 - According to Maryanne Wolf, a cognitive neuroscientist at Tufts University and one of the world's foremost authorities on the study of reading, the superficial manner in which we read material online is making it difficult for us understand works that require more than a momentary commitment to comprehend them.
The author of Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain told the Washington Post that she worries "that the superficial way we read during the day is affecting us when we have to read with more in-depth processing."
"The brain is plastic its whole life span," Wolf said, "the brain is constantly adapting." And it is currently "adapting" to an online environment that favors the acquisition of information at the quickest possible speed.
She even claimed to be a victim of this new mode of "reading" herself, telling the Post about a recent evening in which she attempted to read Hermann Hesse's long, modernist novel The Glass Bead Game.
"I'm not kidding: I couldn't do it," she said. "It was torture getting through the first page. I couldn't force myself to slow down so that I wasn't skimming, picking out key words, organizing my eye movements to generate the most information at the highest speed. I was so disgusted with myself."
"I wanted to enjoy this form of reading again," Wolf continued. "When I found myself [able to do so], it was like I recovered. I found my ability again to slow down, savor and think."
In a previous article - "How the brain adapted itself to read: The first writing systems" (2012) - Wolf discussed how the invention of writing and the concomitant development of reading skills affected cognitive function. In particular, she outlined how the linear nature of reading "exploits and expands our capacity for specialization and our capacity for making new connections among associated areas."
The brain, in other words, developed the capacity to create links between disparate items of knowledge - which is what the Internet, with its HTML links, currently does without reader intervention.
Wolf argues that the abundance of prefabricated connections has transformed us from connection-makers to path-takers, and our brains are devising means of discovering which path will most quickly and efficiently provide us with the information we seek. Practices such as key-word searches, scanning for salient words, skimming for comprehension, scrolling, and link-clicking are not conducive to acquiring a deep understanding of the material being interacted with.
As Andrew Dillon, a reading specialist at the University of Texas, told the Post, "[w]e're spending so much time touching, pushing, linking, scrolling and jumping through text that when we sit down with a novel, your daily habits of jumping, clicking, linking is just ingrained in you."
"We're in this new era of information behavior, and we're beginning to see the consequences of that."
Foremost among them, according to Wolf, is the inability of this generation of college students to retain information contained in long, clause-dense sentences. "They cannot read Middlemarch. They cannot read William James or Henry James," she said.
"I can't tell you how many people have written to me about this phenomenon. The students no longer will or are perhaps incapable of dealing with the convoluted syntax and construction of George Eliot and Henry James."