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Openness is our greatest human resource.

Does the Brain Like E-books?

Really appreciate this series of perspectives from the Times on digital vs analog reading.  

I especially resonated with this one by Maryanne Wolf, John DiBiaggio Professor in the Eliot-Pearson Department of Child Development at Tufts, and the author of “Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain.”

After many years of research on how the human brain learns to read, I came to an unsettlingly simple conclusion: We humans were never born to read. We learn to do so by an extraordinarily ingenuous ability to rearrange our “original parts” — like language and vision, both of which have genetic programs that unfold in fairly orderly fashion within any nurturant environment. Reading isn’t like that.

Each young reader has to fashion an entirely new “reading circuit” afresh every time. There is no one neat circuit just waiting to unfold. This means that the circuit can become more or less developed depending on the particulars of the learner: e.g., instruction, culture, motivation, educational opportunity.

Equally interesting, this tabula rasa circuit is shaped by the particular requirements of the writing system: for example, Chinese reading circuits require more visual memory than alphabets. This “open architecture” of the reading circuit makes the young reader’s developing circuit malleable to what the medium (e.g., digital online reading, book, etc) emphasizes.

And that, of course, is the problem at hand. No one really knows the ultimate effects of an immersion in a digital medium on the young developing brain. We do know a great deal, however, about the formation of what we know as the expert reading brain that most of us possess to this point in history.

October 15th, 2009