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How will we survive the digital 'shallows'?

Posted by David Beard, Globe Staff  June 14, 2010 07:00 PM


By Maryanne Wolf

Reading transforms the human brain, which transforms the mind, which transforms the life of every reader. All of this is about to change, and no one of us knows how.

In his recent book, "The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains,'' Nicholas Carr argues that reading in the medium of the Internet is “rerouting our neural pathways, replacing the subtle mind of the book reader with the distracted mind of the screen watcher.” He bases many of his thought-provoking conclusions on work in the neurosciences, including some of my own on the reading brain. In his upcoming book, "I Live in the Future: & Here is How It Works,'' Nick Bilton argues that such technology will be the basis for the greatest explosion of knowledge in minds that have been expanded through the use of digital media.

A third Nicholas, the Renaissance philosopher Nicolas of Cusa, provides a way to think about these critical issues that occupy opposite trends of thought. Several years before Copernicus, Nicolas of Cusa realized that the Earth was not the center of the universe. He came to this conclusion and others by an approach which he called “a learned ignorance” toward a “coincidence of opposites” of believable truths. What Nicolas meant by learned ignorance was a kind of knowing that is aware of its own limits. Such an awareness in the face of opposing thoughts helps to discover what we know, what we do not know, and what we need to know to understand.

In a series of columns I would like to assume a similar stance of “learned ignorance” toward the implications of several basic pieces of essential knowledge about how the brain learns to read. My goal with the reader will be to consider how this knowledge about the reading brain can inform the current “coincidence of opposites” about the future course of human cognition --- for, that is what Carr, Bilton and all of us are ultimately concerned with in this debate.

The single most important fact about the reading brain is disarmingly simple: we human beings were never born to read. Unlike language and other cognitive functions, there is no genetic program for learning to read. Reading is a human invention, with no “ideal template” that simply unfolds in childhood with input from the environment. To learn to read, each brain has to rearrange itself to form a brad new circuitry that connects some of the most complex areas in vision, language, and cognition. This newly created circuit becomes the basis for the formation of the literate brain that we know today, along with every other potential type of reading brain. That’s the cerebral rub.

There is tremendous variation possible in the ultimate form of the reading circuit. Which circuit parts are used (and how extensively) depends on the writing system (e.g., English vs. Chinese vs. Hebrew); the formation emphases (e.g., how much and how well the child is taught to use all the many cognitive resources available); and the medium (e.g., a sign, a book, the Internet, a Kindle). The Chinese reading brain requires far more cortical areas involved in visual memory than the English reading brain because of the thousands of characters needed. In terms of formation, the circuit can learn with time and cognitive effort to incorporate what I call the “deep reading processes” like inference, critical analysis, imagination, insight, and novel thoughts. Just as easily and indeed with far less effort, the reading brain can be “short-circuited” in its formation with little time and attention (either in milliseconds or years) given to the more expansive and reflective processes that contribute to the individual reader’s cognitive development. Finally, just as Marshall McLuhan presciently wrote, the characteristics of each medium will reinforce the use of some cognitive components and potentially reduce reliance on others. Related to Carr’s arguments, what the medium advantages (e.g., slow, deep reading vs. rapid information-gathering) will influence how the reader’s circuit functions over time and across other mediums. Related to Bilton’s perspective, how different mediums are able to engage the attention and other cognitive capacities of the reader can lead to whole new skills.

The extraordinary malleability that characterizes the ultimate configuration of the reading circuit is the proper basis both for Nick Carr’s trenchant worries and for Bilton’s optimism. That said, the present debate about the nature and quality of thought is not a matter of whether our historical transition’s cup is half-full or half-empty. In our ever more rapid lurch into a digital culture, we need to figure out how to provide a full repertoire of cognitive skills that can be used with discernment across every medium by us and by our children now and in the near-to-distant future. I am suggesting no politely synthetic, Hegelian sleight of hand here. I have been wrestling for years with what Carr is bringing public attention to in 'The Shallows,' and I am indebted to him for this significant contribution to the critically needed debate about how we think. I look forward to more of Bilton’s contributions, and to the exponentially increasing innovations by our inventors and inventive thinkers such as Ray Kurzweil.

Like Nicolas of Cusa, I believe that we must bring all our intelligence to the “coincidence of opposites” that confront us today, and we need to take the time necessary to consider their implications. We cannot go back in time; nor should we lurch forward without the most rigorous and carefully reflected upon considerations for the future generation. The immediate goals may not be difficult to agree upon: an essential set of seemingly opposite, critically analytical, autonomous, technologically sophisticated, reflective, intellectual skills -- and the critical flexibility to use them with discernment across different mediums. There will and should be great debate on how to arrive there.

A starting place involves a more thorough understanding of what the young brain needs to learn to read (the topic of the next column). For, such an examination reveals the unique potential for expanding human thought at the heart of the present iteration of the reading brain and why we must take great pains to preserve it, even as we expand its cognitive repertoire.

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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About the author

Maryanne Wolf holds the John DiBiaggio Professor of Citizenship and Public Service at Tufts University,where she directs the Center for Reading and Language Research in the Eliot-Pearson Department of Child More »

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