Too long, didn't read — how reading online is hurting our brains

Research shows the internet is shortening our attention span and harming memory, creativity, wisdom and the capacity for empathy and critical thinking. Michael Enright talks to Maryanne Wolf, the author of Come Home: The Reading Brain in the Digital World.
The internet is shortening our attention span and harming memory, creativity, wisdom and the capacity for empathy and critical thinking, says writer and professor Maryanne Wolf. (Shutterstock/OHishiapply)
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Writer Maryanne Wolf believes reading online is eroding our brains' greatest attributes — memory, creativity, wisdom, the capacity for empathy and sophisticated, critical thinking.

Wolf, a professor at Tufts University and the author of Come Home: The Reading Brain in the Digital World, said both the writing system and the medium influence the way our brains process information we read.

Because the brain doesn't have a gene for reading, like it does for vision and cognition, it must create a whole new circuit when it encounters new functions like reading or numeracy. These circuits are "plastic," which means they can be restructured.

"Japanese and Chinese readers will use different parts of their brain than we do in an English or an alphabet system," Wolf told The Sunday Edition's host Michael Enright. "But the other part of plasticity that's really the underlying aspect of what we're talking about, is that the circuit will reflect the medium."

In other words, where we're reading is just as important as what we're reading.

"The medium of print that we have become accustomed to over these last millennia is one that enables us to allocate precious milliseconds to what I call the deep reading sophisticated processes, like analogy and inference — and very, very importantly, critical analysis and empathy," she said. 

"We literally take what we see, we think about it, we test it, we evaluate its truth value. We also add the things that we feel. We are connecting to those areas that give us empathy, that transported us outside of ourselves and into an understanding of another person, another perspective."

Wolf said we tend to skim when reading online, because there is so much information to process.

"Skimming helps us filter all that email. But it doesn't allow us to allocate time to go beyond that information-processing part of the brain and into the sophisticated cognitive processes and the empathy processes," she said.

Print, on the other hand, allows for more deep reading, which then allows for critical thinking and empathy-building.

According to Wolf, we have to make a choice.

"We're at this moment where we're moving from a literacy-based form to a digital communication form," she said. "We need to take forward, along with all those new skills, our best skills — which are critical, analytic, empathic and insight processes."

Click 'listen' above to hear the full interview. 

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