Monday, December 12, 2011

Globe and Mail: Atwood and Neuroscientists on Reading, reprint

"Books vs. screens: Which should your kids be reading?

From Tuesday's Globe and Mail
Last week, Canadian author Margaret Atwood thrilled her 285,000-plus Twitter followers by defending their kind as “dedicated readers” who are boldly exploring new frontiers in literacy. Calling the Internet in general “a great literacy driver,” she defended even the most minimal form of screen-based reading as an unalloyed good – “because reading is in fact extremely interactive from a neurological point of view,” she said. “Your brain lights up a lot.”

But many of those who have studied what lights up when people read have come to sharply different conclusions. Basing their concern in part on graphic physical evidence of how brain cells adapt to meet new demands – and wither in the absence of such stimuli – a growing chorus of neuroscientists worry that the “expert reading brain” will soon be as obsolete as the paper and ink it once fed on. And the thing that replaces it (“the Twitter brain”) will be a completely different organ.

In Britain, University of Oxford neuroscientist and former Royal Institution director Susan Greenfield revealed a far different vision – one that could have come straight out of an Atwoodian dystopia – when she warned that Internet-driven “mind change” was comparable with climate change as a threat to the species, “skewing the brain” to operate in an infantalized mode and creating “a world in which we are all required to become autistic.”

Less dire but no less pointed warnings have come from Maryanne Wolf, director of the Center for Reading and Language Research at Tufts University in Massachusetts. “I do think something is going to be lost with the Twitter brain,” she said in an interview.

Wolf first warned of the Internet’s threat to literacy in her book Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain. “I was thunderstruck by what I saw and what I realized from a neuroscience viewpoint,” she said. “… The medium is really important in terms of its effects on a reading circuit [in the brain].”

Both scientists back their assertions with detailed images showing physical differences between the brains of expert and non-expert readers, with the affected cells in the readers’ brains much more thickly branched and intricately interconnected than the same cells in non-reading brains. They emphasize what Wolf calls “the tabula rasa nature of the reading brain,” the fact that there is no genetic map for reading and that brain cells must physically adapt to make the new circuits that enable the mind to read – especially those that help it achieve knowledge from deep concentration in the pages of a non-networked book.

The hyperlinked, text-messaging screen shapes the mind quite differently than the book, according to Wolf. “It pulls attention with such rapidity it doesn’t allow the kind of deep, focused attention that reading a book 10 years ago invited,” she says. “It invites constant change of attention, it invites multitasking. It invites, in other words, a kind of triage of attention.”

Such a skill is certainly necessary in the 21st century, she adds. “But it does not have a place in the deepest kind of immersive thought.”

More research needs to be done to detect the ultimate effects of such neurological changes, according to Wolf. Despite declining book sales and vastly increased competition for the attention of young people, one influential U.S. study found a marked increase in reading."

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