I was comparing notes about a book with a friend the other day and learned I’d missed a key element of the plot. I admit, I didn’t like the story and had scanned parts of it, which may account for my oversight. Then again, maybe not. New research about our plastic brains suggests working on computers affects the way we read.
The question came to light when heads of several English Departments around the country began emailing brain researcher Maryanne Wolfe of Tufts University. (See blog 8/2012) Their quandary was that too many students were having trouble reading the classics. The convoluted sentences in novels by George Elliot, Proust, or Henry James, for example, were proving too challenging for the Twitter generation accustomed, as it is, to sentences composed of no more than 140-characters. http://www.washingtonpost.com/local/serious-reading-takes-a-hit-from-online-scanning-and-skimming-researchers-say/2014/04/06/088028d2-b5d2-11e3-b899-20667de76985_story.html?wpisrc=emailtoafriend
What Wolfe and other researchers have begun to suspect is that the brain reads computer screens differently from the way it reads books. Computer reading invites vertical scanning, the way we do when we scroll through our email messages and make quick decision about what to delete and what to keep. Even text reading is different because it’s often dotted with links that break our concentration and invite us look elsewhere, as in the example above. Reading a book is a linear process. We read not only across the page but by turning pages.
Researchers are quick to point out there are advantages and disadvantages to both vertical and linear reading and in today’s world we must train our brains to be “bi-laterally” literate. Scanning quickly for information has its place as does reading for depth.
Convincing the younger generation to love the convoluted sentences of Proust or James may be a hard sell. But like eating broccoli, developing a taste for the complex may be more important to us than we realize. A few years ago, a study of aging nuns revealed a critical link between the ability to read and write long sentences and incidences of Alzheimer’s. (See Blog 2/27/11) Nuns with the capacity to handle intricate thoughts were the least likely to develop the disease. Preferring Twain to tweets gave them an edge, apparently.
(Courtesy of luisgalarza.blogspot.com)