What is reading digitally doing to our brains?
Updated: Feb 8, 2022
...and what we can do about it.
Hello again! Through Things in Education, we hope to share the latest in education research and developments in the form of accessible summaries and stories to help you in the classroom and at home.
Reading is a difficult activity for the human brain. Depending on the language we can fluently read, our brain develops differently. What does this mean as digital devices replace books as primary reading resource? In the fourth edition of Things in Education, we dive into answering this question. And not surprisingly, the answers may come from the early days of writing in Western Asia and Egypt.
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It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen. – 1984, George Orwell.
Mr. and Mrs. Dursley of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much. – Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, JK Rowling
These are the first lines of two of the most popular books that have been written and read by millions across the globe. Words change worlds, said Pam Allyn; and reading changes our inner lives.
Not only that – reading actually “restructures” our brain. …but what does that even mean?
Restructuring the Human Brain
Imagine that you decide to install a completely new lighting system in your house. The electrician comes in and finds that new wiring will need to be installed, connecting different parts in ways they were not meant to be connected or work together, in order for the new lighting system to work.
This is exactly what reading requires of our brain – our brain needs to form new circuits, connecting different parts in ways that are unique to any other function that the brain performs. As experienced readers, our brains identify letters by their shapes, map them to the right sound, put these sounds together to form a word, retrieve the right meaning of that word, and attach an emotion to it – all of this with such automaticity that we now take for granted. The vision, motor, cognition, language, and affect parts of our brains were never meant to work together at such speeds and for such deep understanding as reading requires.
But that’s not the end of it. The restructuring goes even deeper… Each reader creates a new reading circuit in her brain, depending on the language script, the medium, and even the educational methods (a topic for a future edition). Here’s an example:
This is the left side of the human brain. Can you find the vision centre of the brain in the diagram? Focus on that.
Now, here are the reading brains of readers of different languages, seen from the left and from the right. Once again, focus on the vision centre as seen from both sides. What do you notice?
We see that in the reading brains of English readers, a smaller part of the vision centre is used while reading. But in the reading brains of readers of Chinese, a much larger part of the vision centre is used, taking up space on the left and right sides!
A child learning Chinese has to learn up to 3500 characters by Grade 5 (as opposed to the 26 characters in English!) – and the vision centre of the brain has to devote more space to reading. What this simple example shows us is that the brains of readers of different writing systems are restructured differently, depending on the needs of the language.
Now, what does this have to do with reading digitally? Turns out, a lot. It isn’t just the writing system that influences how our brain is restructured or “rewired.” It’s also the medium of reading. Early reading experiences of reading digitally are restructuring children’s brains differently.
Reading in the Digital Age: Early Readers
Between the ages of 0 and 5, a child’s brain develops the different components of this reading circuit – and after 5, the circuit connects. This tells us that early reading experiences are crucial in order for the reading brain to form a strong circuit. However, early reading experiences dependent on digital devices are hampering the development of this circuit.
Read-alouds: Reading aloud to children in the early years is one of the most important ways to ensure the development of a strong reading circuit. Studies have shown that “the best activation of language centres in the brain happened when the parent was reading to the child.” However, with the infiltration of digital devices, read-alouds by parents are being replaced with read-alouds by digital books, negatively affecting the development of these language centres in the brain.
Shared reading: When parents, siblings or caregivers hold up a book and read with a child, the child imitates the older person, completely focusing her gaze on the book. This is a crucial practice in learning to read deeply. Digital devices that are meant to be used by children independently are taking this experience away from children, leading to underdevelopment of those parts of the circuit that ensure focused reading.
Reading in the Digital Age: Older Readers
Due to an underdeveloped reading circuit, as these children grow older, they are unable to read deeply. In fact, as adults and experienced readers, we may have noticed this change in ourselves as well.
Eye movements: Our ability to read at a stretch and read deeply has reduced, and we have become “expert skimmers.” That’s true – researchers who study eye movements have found that our eyes move in a zigzag manner over the screen of a digital device, stopping at key words on the left, then scrolling down to the conclusion, and then coming back up to find text that supports it. Have you experienced this as well?
Lower attention span: Heightened sensory stimulation in the form of message notifications, likes and short-form videos are now the norm of our daily life. This has considerably reduced our attention span and our ability to give the time and thinking that deep reading requires. Another factor is that with digital devices, we are accustomed to skimming and browsing, and e-readers elicit the same behaviour from us, especially those that have interactive features.
Lack of physicality: Studies have also found something that is not intuitive – digital reading lowers comprehension. The reason is likely the lack of physicality – let’s understand this with an example. A few years ago, I started the Lord of the Rings series on my Kindle. Because I couldn’t physically see and feel how far along in the book I was, I didn’t have a sense of what happened when or where I was in the story.
Studies have found that students who read a print book grasp the story’s plotline better than students who read the same book digitally, and this could be due to some or all of the reasons stated above.
What We Can Do About It
So what can we do about this problem, considering that digital devices are here to stay? The solution is to help children develop a biliterate brain – a brain that can read well using physical books and digital devices. Specifically, children must be made accustomed to deep reading, whether with physical or digital books:
Regular read-alouds and shared reading sessions must be planned into the day, in school, at home, or in the community.
We must build in children the habit of reading without getting distracted for incrementally longer periods of time. This can be done by tracking how long a child can focus on reading and pushing her to focus a bit more every day.
E-readers and reading apps meant to be used by children must rid themselves of all bells and whistles – notifications, awards for finishing a certain number of pages, and so on. Features such as dictionaries and audio notes must be as non-intrusive as possible.
To lend physicality to the story, e-readers and reading apps can include a visual cue that tells the reader how much of the book is done, just like a physical book.
More importantly, we need a more balanced approach to physical and digital reading. Schools must develop their approach, yearly plans and learning material accordingly, and country-wide policies should support this shift. And finally, as Maryanne Wolf suggests, we must all “bookend our days with print reading!”
How Medium Affects Form
Digital readers are a new medium of reading, and history has shown us that medium affects form. Here’s a great example:
The first written language, Sumerian, was used in the regions of and around Egypt, Babylon and Assyria. Observe its features carefully.
Sumerian then split into two languages over time:
Hieroglyphics around Egypt.
…and cuneiform towards the west – Babylon and Assyria.
But why did it evolve into 2 such distinct scripts? Because medium affects form.
Egypt had the papyrus plant, so they could make paper (MEDIUM), which made it easy to draw – and so hieroglyphics (FORM) are basically drawings.
But the western parts didn't have access to much papyrus. What they did have was lots of clay, so they began to write on clay tablets (MEDIUM), using sticks. Which is why cuneiform is lines with wedges (FORM) – to write, they would push a stick into clay tablets at different angles. The pressure at the edge of the stick created wedges.
If medium affects form so drastically, how do you think tablets and keyboards (MEDIUM) will change current written language (FORM) over time? And how do you think this change will affect our reading circuits?
Storybook reading and storytelling: In this article, Ritu Lamba proposes a model for preschool reading, with a focus on storybook reading and storytelling.
Screen-based online learning will change kids' brains: Maryanne Wolf, whose work and writings have inspired this newsletter edition, talks about the importance of reading physical books regularly.
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