The human brain is an adaptable organ. This, of course, is good in that we can learn throughout our lifetime. It is also not so good in that it can adapt in ways that aren’t good for us.
Michael Rosenwald, in a story in the Washington Post, reported that neuroscientists suspect that the way people read online is affecting their ability to comprehend printed text or what they call “deep reading.” Online readers tend to skim, scanning text for specific words and clicking off to another page if there is nothing of interest. The brain, researchers believe, adapts to this way of reading, the circuitry actually changing to better perform at the task. With that change, the reader’s brain may be losing the ability to read deep into text.
One of Mr. Rosenwald’s interviews was with Maryanne Wolf, a cognitive neurologist at Tufts University, whom he refers to as an expert on the study of reading. After a day of reading online, she told him, she sat down in the evening to read Hermann Hesse’s “The Glass Bead Game,” and couldn’t do it. She couldn’t slow herself down enough to comprehend it; she couldn’t force herself to stop skimming.
If this bears out to be the fact of the matter, parents should seriously consider limiting the amount of time their children spend with their digital devices. And educators will have to reconsider approaches to curriculums.
Deep reading is arguably one of the most important life skills. Math and engineering will help a person land a job. Interpersonal skills and management ability will, too. But ultimately the skill one needs most is the ability to learn, and that requires deep reading. Without the ability to read deeply and learn, no person can keep up with the ever-changing world.
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Educators should rethink the idea that every child in the classroom must have an iPad or tablet. If the neuroscientists are right about what reading on the web will do to one’s brain, educators should put renewed focus on reading printed texts.
Who knows? Children might actually enjoy reading more good books.