Is Online Skimming Hurting Reading Comprehension? Cognitive neuroscientist Maryanne Wolf fears skimming and scanning on our digital devices is ruining our ability for "deep reading."
NPR logo Is Online Skimming Hurting Reading Comprehension?

ROBIN YOUNG, HOST:

It's HERE AND NOW. How much scanning do you do every day, not reading as in sitting down with an actual book, but scrolling, linking, clicking through, skimming on computers, tablets, phones? A recent article by Michael Rosenwald(ph) in the Washington Post caught our eye. Literally, we were scanning it, you know, to see if it would be of any interest. And we saw the sentence: Humans may be developing digital brains. You think?

The concern is that the way we hopscotch through digital material hours at a time may be affecting our ability to really read. And one of those with concern is Maryanne Wolf. She's a cognitive neuroscientist at Tufts University, the author of "Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain." And she joins us in the studio now. Have I got it right, are you one of those concerned?

MARYANNE WOLF: Oh of course I am. But I, like all of us, live in a world in which we have both concerned, and we have optimism. So it's from both of those stances that...

YOUNG: And you expressed some of the concern early on in "Proust and the Squid," the title has to do with different ways of reading, we won't go into that, but you say that this has happened to you.

WOLF: Yes, indeed when I was first writing this book, when I finished it, it was like a Rip Van Winkle experience. I looked up, and the world had changed. Reading had changed fundamentally. And I spend five to eight hours screen-reading, too, and I thought oh surely it hasn't affected me. That's my whole, my modus vivendi.

And I tested myself by going back to one of the books I loved most by Hermann Hesse, not the easy one, "Siddhartha," but "The Glass Bead Game," "Magister Ludi." It's a very convoluted, beautifully written book but very difficult. And I sat down, opened it up, waiting for the pleasure of the reading life and I couldn't believe my eyes, literally. It was stuck. I couldn't...

YOUNG: You couldn't read it.

WOLF: I couldn't read it, and I thought how can this happen to me, who loves reading, who loved this book. I couldn't. The prose was so difficult, the syntax. I was too impatient to read something I loved.

YOUNG: We are all talking about this in the office.

WOLF: It was horrible.

YOUNG: You had a great line. You said TV produced soundbite culture; online reading is producing eyebite culture.

WOLF: Yes, I'm afraid that what we're becoming is so inured to seizing the most salient word that we are literally eliminating the music, the thoughts in between those words, some of the most precious aspects of written language.

YOUNG: And this isn't just you and me. You're hearing from English department chairs.

WOLF: Yes, and what they're saying is that their students find the 19th century and early 20th century too demanding, and it's not intellectually demanding, it's demanding of time. They don't seem to want to have the patience to go after that kind of writing.

YOUNG: Well, let me ask you something, and first establish, as you and other scientists have, that reading is very different from vision or language. There's no gene for it.

WOLF: Absolutely.

YOUNG: So this is something, you know, the brain had to figure out how to read, right, and is constantly figuring out how to do things when it comes to reading. So there's a possibility we've changed. That's the premise here.

WOLF: Yes.

YOUNG: But is it possible that we're deciding that maybe past writing was too dense? I'm going to play devil's advocate here because I love to read. One of our colleagues reminded us of a Mark Twain quote that once you've put one of Henry James' books down, you simply can't pick it up again.

(LAUGHTER)

YOUNG: Because it is too dense, and our boss, the boss of us, Kathleen(ph), said she recently tried to read Henry James' "The Portrait of a Lady," and she couldn't get through the denseness of it. Let's listen to just a little.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: She had answered nothing because his words had put the situation before her, and she was absorbed in looking at it. There was something in them that suddenly made vibrations deep, so that she had been afraid to trust herself to speak. After he had gone, she leant back in her chair and closed her eyes, and for a long time, far into the night and still further, she sat in the still drawing room, given up to her meditation.

YOUNG: OK, is it possible, Professor Wolf, that our brains, which are always evolving all the time, along with our culture are just deciding, you know what, that stuff's too dense?

WOLF: Let me give you an analogy. If you want to discover a city, and you go on a tour, do you take the tour with just two stops, or do you want to understand the fullness of the city, the history, the places that no one really knows? The more you put into that tour, the more you will understand the city and the same with reading. The more that plastic brain can attach meaning and knowledge and insight, the more we will have a different quality of attention and quality of thought.

YOUNG: We're speaking with Maryanne Wolf, cognitive neuroscientist at Tufts, author of "Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain." You're listening to HERE AND NOW.

Well so if adults are losing what you think is this precious gift, and I bet, I'd love to hear from listeners, I bet other listeners are saying this, that's right, I'm trying to sit down and read, and I can't, are kids never getting this ability?

WOLF: Robin, this is the single most important thought for me. I'm less concerned about the adults because we ultimately have the discernment to go back and forth. But children may never have formed those precious abilities to attend and focus in a very concentrated way in order for them to connect to their own best thoughts.

YOUNG: And this is why you are a huge advocate of reading to children, because again this is not a natural ability. The brain has to be trained to have these circuits.

WOLF: That's right, it's probably the two most important things I would ever tell parents: talk around the dinner table every single night; and read every single day to your children.

YOUNG: But you're also not saying absolutely no technology for kids.

WOLF: Not at all. This is no binary. We cannot go back. We have to equip our children with 21st-century skills. But at the same time, we must know how to form those reading circuits that allow what I call deep reading. It takes years to form in a child, and it takes milliseconds in us to use. And those milliseconds don't just come naturally; we have to learn to use them.

YOUNG: Well, and we need to say we can also relearn how to have the love of long reading because you did that with the Hesse. It's hard, but you went back to it.

WOLF: Yes, it took me literally two weeks to find myself. Every day I was recovering those circuits and learning how to read again as I once had. By the end of those two weeks, I felt, Robin, as if I had come home.

(LAUGHTER)

YOUNG: Because you could sit with a book.

WOLF: I could, I could exert the fullness of my attention and its ability to pick up all these nuances that authors have struggled to articulate. That gives us keys to wisdom and insight. That's what's so important about the reading life.

YOUNG: A book has an arc, and a character might get mentioned in the second chapter, and you might not hear of him again for five chapters, but there will be a reason, and you lose that if you're only skimming.

WOLF: Absolutely, absolutely. We don't want to become either Twitter brains or the people who only read the first half-page of a Google entry. That's short-circuiting what we might have.

YOUNG: What about the people who say that's not happening, I can easily go from 10 hours online during the day to a novel, I have no problem?

WOLF: Some of my friends actually have written me. One lepidopterist did.

YOUNG: A lepidopterist.

WOLF: A lepidopterist from Harvard Publishing. I have no trouble. The reality is we can do it, and there are always individual differences, and I'm sure among the audience there are going to be those individual differences. But then when I ask her how about poetry, it takes too long, I don't have the concentration right now for it. Well this is part of it. It's just not the novel; it's the poem that we once had memorized that we no longer return to.

I would ask every reader to think for themselves. Don't just lurch into thinking that you can do everything the way you did. Test yourself. Reader beware.

(LAUGHTER)

YOUNG: Maryanne Wolf, cognitive neuroscientist at Tufts, author of "Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain." Her forthcoming book will concentrate on what we've just been talking about, this new problem of a potential digital brain. Professor Wolf, thanks so much.

WOLF: Thank you, Robin.

YOUNG: OK, lepidopterists, butterfly lovers, or anyone else, we'll ask Dr. Wolf about words on the radio, and we'll have that as a Web extra at hereandnow.org.

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