Potential for a Bi-Literate Brain

The web was born around 25 years ago, and I’ll bet that not long after that researchers began studying how being online changes the human mind. With reports that often included dire warnings.

This recent study is no exception.

To cognitive neuroscientists, Handscombe’s experience is the subject of great fascination and growing alarm. Humans, they warn, seem to be developing digital brains with new circuits for skimming through the torrent of information online. This alternative way of reading is competing with traditional deep reading circuitry developed over several millennia.

Is that something to be alarmed about? Is a “digital brain”, one that has adapted to manage a “torrent” of online information, really all that bad?

I can accept that the process of reading material in analog form is very different from reading a hyperlinked document on a screen. But is one format better than the other? If the “brain is constantly adapting” can’t it learn techniques to do both well?

Our history seems to indicate we can.

The brain was not designed for reading. There are no genes for reading like there are for language or vision. But spurred by the emergence of Egyptian hieroglyphics, the Phoenician alphabet, Chinese paper and, finally, the Gutenberg press, the brain has adapted to read.

I’ll bet those first examples of written language were not Moby Dick-length novels. Probably more like Twitter-length messages. In fact, it’s only been within the past few centuries that a majority of people in western cultures could even read at all. Prior to that printed materials of any length were usually only consumed by certain educated classes.

Anyway, I’m not sure the work of one researcher with a forthcoming book that “will look at what the digital world is doing to the brain” is reason to panic. In fact, the writer of this article ends with exactly the right approach.

Researchers say that the differences between text and screen reading should be studied more thoroughly and that the differences should be dealt with in education, particularly with school-aged children. There are advantages to both ways of reading. There is potential for a bi-literate brain.

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