The development of written language has undoubtedly shaped the manner in which human societies function. Although only around 6,000 years old, the acts of writing and reading have allowed for the committing of ideas, fiction, happenings, and memories to a physical object, which may then be shared and proliferated. Most of the world’s knowledge has been documented through text, and the literate person is able to access these, imbuing themselves with the information they would not have otherwise been exposed to.
Not only this, but reading also changes the neural circuitry present within our brains. Studies using MRI scans have shown that new neural pathways develop when one learns to read, and this complex network of signals only becomes stronger and more sophisticated as their reading level matures. So it is not surprising to find that the human mind has changed as the medium of reading has evolved from paper to the digital screen.
Screens and the growth of shrinking texts
The development of high-resolution smart-screens, combined with the advent of the Internet has changed writing and, as a result, the reading habits of the general population. As we have access to all the information we could ever want instantly through search engines, news sites, archival websites, eBook troves, and even social media, there is a constant struggle to divide up our attention, deciding which pieces out of the billions are enticing enough to be read. There is so much that interests us, and in an effort to cram in as much content as possible, we resort to skimming articles and scrolling quickly through web pages and apps. The nature of the published text itself differs greatly from books due to their interactivity and mutability.
Alternatively, content that tends to be displayed onscreen is colourful and varied, and the sensationalism of news stories requires pieces to be outrageously interesting to garner views. Even Reddit threads featuring paragraphs often offer up TL;DR (Too Long; Didn’t Read) summaries, showcasing just how short attention spans have become – even social media posts require blurbs. Long-form journalism and storytelling are rarities in the digital age, and the reader and publisher collaborate to reshape the very notion of what it means to read. The fast-paced online news cycle makes it difficult to focus on specific subjects in-depth – knowledge now is often wider, yet shallower, leading to information overload. In short, attention spans have become shorter as a result of less complex, yet abundant content.
Additionally, the problem with screens is that with all of the information they contain, content is virtually structureless. The screen changes in the blink of an eye and things are not guaranteed to remain in the same place with updates, restructuring, and deletions. Even in the case of e-Readers which mimic the pagination and structure of a physical book, there is a loss of physicality, placement, and aura – you flip through your digital collection of books in the way you would web pages. Furthermore, every book and page is indistinguishable – black typography on a white background, always pristine and interchangeable. The weight of the physical experience of reading is often forgotten – the text ages with the person, notes accumulate and signs of wear arise from sharing the book with loved ones. Pages feel and smell a certain way – in a way that technology can never realistically recreate.
Many may feel that the transcription of physical books into a digital format is straightforward and does not change the texts whatsoever. Others feel that as the medium changes, so does the content. Affordances such as ‘sharing’ highlighted passages on social media, saving excerpts in a side tab, as well as changing size and type of font are not available on physical books – although these carry benefits, they are incredibly distracting. Screens are too multipurpose to be lasting or immersive in the way physical text is.
How have screens changed reading?
This brain circuitry reflects the medium which it reads, and an individual trained on novels will differ greatly from one that utilises the screen as their primary reading mode.
Reading in its purest form has many benefits, such as increased empathy, widened vocabulary, stress reduction, depression aiding, help with sleep, as well as the prevention of age-related cognitive decline. However, interestingly, the inverse of this is experienced with heightened screen time. Side effects include sleep deprivation, loss of cognitive ability, weakened emotional judgement, and delayed learning in young children.
As on-screen reading may be accompanied by videos and graphics, it can lead to less imaginative readers, and as with a shortened attention span, it becomes more difficult to engage with complex content, free from the bells and whistles of the screen.
This has become alarming for digital natives – kids born into technology, who utilise it as both their primary medium for education and entertainment. Technology has coded our minds, but perhaps it is the younger generations that will be most afflicted by the mass adoption of smartphones and computers.
Compared to paper, screens tend to mentally drain users, causing greater fatigue, making it more difficult to retain information after reading it. Paper is less demanding as it can only be used to read, with no stress-inducing and urgent notifications, noises, or alerts. The presence of these other features may lead to less absorption of text, as readers associate the medium with casual Internet use.
As explained earlier, we were not born with the mental structures that are formed when one learns to read. These were originally made for object recognition, and as such, there is a physicality in reading and letters – the brain maps out the terrain of pages and paragraphs in a similar way it does to fields or mountainscapes. Each letter is recognised through its distinct features, and as we become more accustomed to it, pattern recognition becomes more natural to us. These words are then anchored to meanings and greater contexts.
In the way that one may remember that they passed a pink house on the way to the local water well, we remember linearly the events that have happened in a book – flipping back to the third page of chapter 2 when the love interest is introduced for the first time. These landmarks and written events do not move, which is why we are able to create cognitive maps. We are always able to pinpoint this specific happening as the text is fixed and will never move – the same thing can be read on the same exact page years from the first time the book was perused. This makes mental mapping easy, navigation follows a linear structure. This was proven in a 2017 study, which found that participants’ reading comprehension worsened when told to scroll through a comic book’s individual panels, instead of reading from a printed copy. As we spend more time on non-linear screens, we lose some of our ability to read paper books.
The Biliterate Brain
A study comparing digital reading comprehension in 2000 and 2017 found that we have become worse at reading and understanding digital texts. This may be attributed to increased exposure to the screen, changing not only the material we read on but the manner in which we read.
This has brought up the importance of the Biliterate Brain. Coined by scholar Maryanne Wolf, the term refers to a mind which is suited to both physical and digital realms. She believes that we need to continue deep reading – or reading that involves comprehension, immersion, reasoning, critical analysis, reflection, and insight.
In a 2009 paper she wrote in collaboration with Mirit Barzialli, they explained:
‘The expert reader needs milliseconds to execute these processes; the young brain needs years to develop them. Both of these pivotal dimensions of time are potentially endangered by the digital culture’s pervasive emphases on immediacy, information loading, and a media-driven cognitive set that embraces speed and can discourage deliberation in both our reading and our thinking.’
Digital screens have greatly changed information acquisition, as immediacy is valued and contemplation increasingly becoming more diminished.
We are at a new crossroads, similar to the ancient warning Socrates announced by way of Plato, on the danger of the written word replacing oral storytelling. As he believed that memory and understanding would be affected by the permanence of writing, it is now believed that digital media will detrimentally affect generations to come.
Uninterrupted, analogue reading should be used to balance out the overstimulation brought to us by our screens. Although digital literacy is exceedingly important in the online era, it is integral for the younger generations to step back and develop deep reading skills before they can be trusted with the chaotic incoherence of screens.
About the Author: Shadine Taufik
Shadine Taufik is a contributing Features writer with expertise in digital sociology and culture, philosophy of technology, and computational creativity.
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