I recently attended a lecture on the restoration of the deep reading brain in the digital age. The implication was that in the digital age we no longer read and contemplate deeply but skip from one short article to the next. In other words, we live in a world of sound bites. Studies suggest that our new form of reading and study is actually changing neural connections in our brain. While this may be true, I think we need to understand whether this is a bad development or just part of our continued human evolution.
Deep Reading Brain
Maryanne Wolf, author of “Proust and the Squid,” coined the phrase deep reading brain. Deep reading is the process of sustained study and concentration, but more importantly it is associated with the ability to connect reading to other ideas in order to create unique thoughts. Shallow reading, on the other hand, is cast in a bad light as not promoting further understanding but merely informing about news or information. Some authors link the shift to shallow reading to the proliferation of digital devices and particularly handheld devices. This does not take into account the fact that we have a lot more information available to us than in the past, and it is available in a format that does not require us to sit down and actually read a paper book. Does the potential loss of a deep reading brain jeopardize other areas of our thinking?
Socrates and the Written Word
Is the concern about a shift from a deep reading brain a problem unique to us? The short answer is no. As humans, we have only been reading and writing for the last 5,500 years. Before that we communicated verbally in order to exchange information and record history. During the last transition, Socrates is reported to have expressed concern about the new written word of his day in an account from Plato. He was worried that young people would think that knowledge was now all recorded and required no further pursuit or contemplation. Does this sound like a familiar argument? To quote French critic Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr, “The more things change, the more they stay the same.”
Aristotle writes about three lives that we should lead, the highest being a life of study and contemplation. Some argue that we now lead a distracted life instead and cannot slow down long enough to pursue the contemplative life. My purpose for this blog entry is to ask questions. Is this the new reality in our modern day thinking? Is it good, bad, or just different? As we build new neural connections geared towards processing large amounts of information, are we losing the ability for deep thinking and processing or are we building a new and more valuable skill? I would love to get your thoughts and start a dialogue to work through these questions.
Kelly Brown is an IT professional and assistant professor of practice for the UO Applied Information Management Master’s Degree Program. He writes about IT and business topics that keep him up at night.