Summer 2010 | Online Exclusives

Our ‘Deep Reading’ Brain: Its Digital Evolution Poses Questions

‘The reading circuit’s very plasticity is also its Achilles’ heel. It can be fully fashioned over time and fully implemented when we read, or it can be short-circuited …’

By Maryanne Wolf

Will we lose the “deep reading” brain in a digital culture? No one knows—yet.

The preceding paragraph provides a legitimate synopsis of this essay. It also exemplifies the kind of reduced reading that concerns me greatly, both for expert adult readers and even more so for young novice readers, those who are learning how to read in a way that helps them to comprehend and expand upon the information given.

The challenges surrounding how we learn to think about what we read raise profound questions. They have implications for us intellectually, socially and ethically. Whether an immersion in digitally dominated forms of reading will change the capacity to think deeply, reflectively and in an intellectually autonomous manner when we read is a question well worth raising. But it isn’t one I can answer now, given how early we are in the transition to digital content.

In my work on the evolution of the reading brain during the past decade, I have found important insights from the history of literacy, neuroscience and literature that can help to better prepare us to examine this set of issues. The historical moment that best approximates the present transition from a literate to a digital culture is found in the ancient Greeks’ transition from an oral culture to a literacy-based culture. Socrates, who was arguably Greece’s most eloquent apologist for an oral culture, protested against the acquisition of literacy. And he did so on the basis of questions that are prescient today—and, in that prescience, surprising.

Socrates contended that the seeming permanence of the printed word would delude the young into thinking they had accessed the crux of knowledge, rather than simply decoded it. For him, only the intellectually effortful process of probing, analyzing and internalizing knowledge would enable the young to develop a lifelong, personal approach to knowing and thinking, which could lead them to their ultimate goals—wisdom and virtue. Only the examined word—and the examined life—was worth pursuing. Literacy, Socrates believed, would short-circuit both.

Using a 21st century paraphrase, the operative word is “short-circuited.” I use it to segue into a different, yet concrete way of conceptualizing Socrates’s elegantly described worries. Modern imaging technology allows us to scan the brains of expert and novice readers and observe how human brains learn to read. Briefly, here is what we find: Whenever we learn something new, the brain forms a new circuit that connects some of the brain’s original structures. In the case of learning to read, the brain builds connections between and among the visual, language and conceptual areas that are part of our genetic heritage, but that were never woven together in this way before.

Brain Pathways: Created By Reading

Gradually we are beginning to understand the stunning complexity that is involved in the expert reader’s brain circuit. For example, when reading even a single word, the first milliseconds of the reading circuit are largely devoted to decoding the word’s visual information and connecting it to all that we know about the word from its sounds to meanings to syntactic functions. The virtual automaticity of this first set of stages allows us in the next milliseconds to go beyond the decoded text. It is within the next precious milliseconds that we enter a cognitive space where we can connect the decoded information to all that we know and feel. In this latter part of the process of reading, we are given the ability to think new thoughts of our own: the generative core of the reading process.

Perhaps no one better captured what the reader begins to think in those last milliseconds of the reading circuit than the French novelist Marcel Proust. In 1906, he characterized the heart of reading as that moment when “that which is the end of [the author’s] wisdom appears to us as but the beginning of ours.” A bit more than a century later, in 2010, book editor Peter Dimock said that “[this] kind of reading, then, is a time of internal solitary consciousness in which the reading consciousness is brought up to the level of the knowledge of the author—the farthest point another mind has reached, as it were …”

The act of going beyond the text to analyze, infer and think new thoughts is the product of years of formation. It takes time, both in milliseconds and years, and effort to learn to read with deep, expanding comprehension and to execute all these processes as an adult expert reader. When it comes to building this reading circuit in a brain that has no preprogrammed setup for it, there is no genetic guarantee that any individual novice reader will ever form the expert reading brain circuitry that most of us form. The reading circuit’s very plasticity is also its Achilles’ heel. It can be fully fashioned over time and fully implemented when we read, or it can be short-circuited—either early on in its formation period or later, after its formation, in the execution of only part of its potentially available cognitive resources.

Because we literally and physiologically can read in multiple ways, how we read—and what we absorb from our reading—will be influenced by both the content of our reading and the medium we use.

Few need to be reminded of the transformative advantages of the digital culture’s democratization of information in our society. That is not the issue I address here. Rather, in my research, I seek to understand the full implications for the reader who is immersed in a reading medium that provides little incentive to use the full panoply of cognitive resources available.

We know a great deal about the present iteration of the reading brain and all of the resources it has learned to bring to the act of reading. However, we still know very little about the digital reading brain. My major worry is that, confronted with a digital glut of immediate information that requires and receives less and less intellectual effort, many new (and many older) readers will have neither the time nor the motivation to think through the possible layers of meaning in what they read. The omnipresence of multiple distractions for attention—and the brain’s own natural attraction to novelty—contribute to a mindset toward reading that seeks to reduce information to its lowest conceptual denominator. Sound bites, text bites, and mind bites are a reflection of a culture that has forgotten or become too distracted by and too drawn to the next piece of new information to allow itself time to think.

We need to find the ability to pause and pull back from what seems to be developing into an incessant need to fill every millisecond with new information. As I was writing this piece, a New York Times reporter contacted me to find out whether I thought Internet reading might aid speed reading.

“Yes,” I replied, “but speed and its counterpart—assumed efficiency—are not always desirable for deep thought.”

We need to understand the value of what we may be losing when we skim text so rapidly that we skip the precious milliseconds of deep reading processes. For it is within these moments—and these processes in our brains—that we might reach our own important insights and breakthroughs. They might not happen if we’ve skipped on to the next text bite. Tough questions. Rigorous research. These are what are needed now of us as we ponder the kind of readers we are becoming and how the next generation of readers will be formed.
For further resources on this topic, see "Reading" in our Digital Library »
Our failure to do this may leave us confronted with a situation that technology visionary Edward Tenner described in 2006: “It would be a shame if brilliant technology were to end up threatening the kind of intellect that produced it.”

Maryanne Wolf directs the Center for Reading and Language Research and is the John DiBiaggio Professor of Citizenship and Public Service and professor of child development within the Eliot-Pearson Department of Child Development at Tufts University. She is the author of “Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain,” published by HarperCollins. A version of this essay will be translated for the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung.

13 Comments on Our ‘Deep Reading’ Brain: Its Digital Evolution Poses Questions
Anthony Olszewski says:
June 29, 2014 at 2:57pm

in the title, Edmund Carpenter was for nearly three years described as an "archaelogist." I think that it's significant -- and of course ironic -- that this typo was at NYTimes,com for some years without being noticed. It would seem that many astute people -- including friends and family who would be motivated to contact the Times and request correction-- read the piece without seeing the spelling mistake in the title. My speculation is that on screen reading itself impaired concentration.

As a tangent, one might wonder why the Times missed with an advantage of electronic text -- spell check.

Eric McLuhan's Fordham Experiment with film (albeit more of a demonstration) seemed to show that light on, light through alone is significant. And that's just comparing reading on a paper page versus an eReader. With a major newspaper's Site, there might very well be animated popup ads demanding attention, flavoring the experience more like the Star Wars cantina than a library. And there's no location at

a newspaper Web Site. In the paper copy, news, opinion, sports are in different neighborhoods, immediately indicating value and relevance. Online, everything and anything resides in the same one click away long house.

A high level of literacy was an important factor in the American Revolution. Any George III of the future will be secure in knowing that when his Thomas Paine writes Common Sense very few will even try to read it on a small screen. And for most of those that even try to do so, something will appear over to the side about an actress in a bikini and that'll be that.
Michael W. Perry says:
April 9, 2014 at 6:02pm
One further comment, this one from the mysterious world of cats.
When I had cat, she'd become obviously disturbed for several hours after I rearranged my apartment. In her feline mind, it was supposed to be fixed and unchanging. Being a night creature, she wanted to have a mental image of what was where in her head. Changing that altering something that her mind did not like to see altered.
On the other hand, right in the middle of her world was a big, clumsy, unpredictable human being who was constantly moving about--me. That didn't bother her in the least because she'd tagged me in her mind as movable and harmless.
Alas, little children were not similar tagged. The home that she came from as a kitten had several small kids and her experiences must have been bad because in her twelve years of life, she never learned to trust them. In her mind they were tagged as both movable and dangerous.
Those feline tags: fixed v. movable, and safe v. dangerous undoubtedly exist in our own minds.
--Mike Perry, Inkling Books
Michael W. Perry says:
April 9, 2014 at 5:51pm
Those who're attempting to persuade others that digital reading is different from print might keep in mind that brain scans are likely to pass over their heads. A epaper Kindle screen, they will say, looks like grey paper and a computer screen looks like bright white paper. How could our brain be processing them differently?
To win them over, you'll need a reasonable mechanism to explain the difference. You need to be able to describe not just what but how. It's not just that Area A lights up for one and Area B lights up for the other but why that difference exists.
And I'm not sure what that mechanism might be, but it might rest in a distinction our minds undoubtedly make between something that fixed and unchanging (a rock, a hill and a printed book) and how it interprets something alive and constantly changing (a forest, a lion or a computer screen).
Our brain needs to process the two differently. The fixity of that hill needs to be set in our minds and taken into account when we journey, but we need not fret that it will move.
On the other hand, the changeability of that forest needs to be watched and tagged uncertain because out of it something dangerous such as an lion can emerge. And our brains need to process an image of a lion even more differently from a forest.
The latter will undoubtedly attract more of our attention. Our lives depend more on knowing what that ever changing lion does than what that never changing hill does.
In fact, the lion we place in our world should not be treated as fixed. We make a grave error if we always assume that it sleeps under that oak tree. Our lives hinge on believing it can change and be almost anywhere.
That then links into the difference between short term memory, for example what cars around us in traffic are doing, and long term memory, such as the color of our car. One is used but quickly discarded. The other needs to be retained. Apply that to digital versus print and you have the foundation for two different ways of processing text. With digital the thing itself seems to change. With print, we view a different aspect of something that does not change.
That's ust a guess, but perhaps a useful one to ponder. And the idea seems rooted in how our brains needed to view a world that was neither print nor digital.
--Michael W. Perry, author of My Nights with Leukemia: Caring for Children with Cancer
vennie thompson says:
October 10, 2011 at 7:35pm
"Deep reflection" doesn't necessarily need to occur at the moment the text is read. As information is tranfered from short to mid-term memory and from mid to long-term memory, it continues to percolate through the associational matrix of the amygdala subconsciously. The brain is not restricted to doing one thing at a time, rather unresolved implications tend to hover "in the back of the mind" with assoiational and analyticccal process continuing naturally without directed attention. It is unsuurprising therefore that many including myself might later draw insights while dreaming, dreaming being in fact the process of moving medium term memory into long term memory in perceptually meaningful fashion. Focus to hard on the "instant of the tree" and You may miss the surrounding forest of continuing active consciousness. Further, the continuing distractions can sometimes add to insight, allowing associations that may not otherwise have been made and increasing cognitive skill in selectively filtering distractions and othherwise dealing with them in a way that can improve rather than detract from cognition. Then there is the matter of the mature female brain, which evolution has evidently adapted to dealing with several similtaneous goal demands at once, and may actually function better under multiple input demands.
K/1 Teacher says:
March 2, 2011 at 11:55pm
Maryanne, what I understand from your research is that our brains are not "hard wired" for print as they are for vision and sound. We had to create new circuits for print to gain the cultural ability to pass information on across space and time. As technology has made it easier to communicate through our more natural auditory and visual senses, where is the need for print? There are centuries of careful thought encoded in print that we would be foolish to discard. Still, I think it's a leap to say that contemplative thought depends on print, and I'm sure Socrates would agree. I recently helped a friend change the brake light on her 2007 Honda Odyssey. I dutifully read the printed manual, visualizing each step and forming the mental sequence before turning the first screw, like every good reader should. When I got stuck at a certain step I went back to the manual, but I didn't find the information I needed to proceed. My next step was to take the phone from my pocket and find a video on YouTube that showed exactly what I needed. I was chagrined to realize it would have been faster to watch the video in the first place. Technology has given us faster and more effective ways to communicate knowledge. I have a very relevant closing statement about contemplation and depth of processing but I just heard my email sound. Be right back.
Alif Wahid says:
July 24, 2010 at 5:48am
I personally have an additional worry that people in general have lost the essential ability to make rational decisions after comprehending the many layers of meaning and consequences embedded in texts carried over various forms (paper, video, audio etc.). I am not an economist and do not subscribe to the notion that human beings can ever be reduced to utility maximising rational agents. However, I do find that there are situations in our lives where a rational decision is critically important. Voting in an election being one of them. What are the threats if society at large becomes incapable of comprehending information in all its complicated glory and fails to patiently rationalise that complexity for making decisions?
Danny Bloom says:
June 20, 2010 at 1:55am
MRI brain imaging lab studies differences in screen, paper reading

April 20, 2010

Ellen Marker studies reading. But not off screens or in paper books.
Her research is done in a Quincy laboratory.

The pioneering neuroscientist analyzes brains in their most enthusiastic
reading state, hoping to understand the differences between reading
off screens and reading on paper surfaces.
Like me, Dr Marker feels that her studies will show reading on paper
is superior to reading off screens in terms of
retention, processing, analysis and critical thinking.

But first, let's see what the scans will be like.

Dr Marker asks me to put myself into an fMRI machine so she and his
team can study which areas of the brain are activated by reading text
on paper compared to reading the same text on a computer screen or a
Kindle e-reader.

And this is why I’m here. Today I will donate my brain scans to science.

Among the things that Market has discovered so far is that reading on
paper might be
something we as a civilization should not ever give up.

"Even though reading on screens is useful and convenient, and I do it
all the time, I feel that
reading on paper is somethine we should never cede to the digital
revolution," Marker, 43, says. "We need both."

On the day I climb into the brain imaging cocoon, I am thinking about
what it all might mean.
But since I am just a guinea pig and not a scientist, I will have to
wait for the results.

I enter a sterile lab, and Marker and her four associates greet me,
all in white lab coats.
As they hand me my a pale blue gown to change into, I have
second thoughts — “How can I read while lying down horizontally my
back, not my preferred reading mode?” — but decide to push myself.

Science needs me!

The scientists load me into the machine and I'm off.

Next step: They strap my head down, because any movement distorts the
brain imaging. Ever try to read a book without facial movements?

I feel as if I’m being shoved into the middle of a toilet paper roll,
the walls so close my eyelashes almost graze them.

Then I hear a voice through the earphones I’m wearing. It’s Dr Marker.

“You okay in there?” she asks.

Graduate student Dan Smith, 52, tells me to relax before
running around to join the other scientists in the control room.

With the invention of the fMRI only 20 years ago, along came the
ability to look at brain activity. Marker says that by understanding a
function as gigantic as reading, how the reading brain does its magic
dance, a response that hijacks all of
one’s attention, she might also learn how reading on screens could be
inferior to reading on paper.

“The more we understand how the brain works,” she says, “the more we
will be able to help people modulate its activity.”

As the machine switches on, it sounds like a jackhammer. I follow
Marker's instructions and as I do, the group watches my brain on
their computer monitors. I willl read passages from a novel, and then
later I will read
the same passages on a Kindle. I just hope the Kindle does not blow up
inside the brain scan machine!

Research and teaching take up most of Marker's time, but when she has a
spare moment, she thinks about what all this might mean for the future
of humankind.

During my first hour in the fMRI machine, researchers map my brain's
reading paths
to find out which parts correlate to
which regions of the brain.

“You have 10 minutes,” Marker says through my earphones near the end
of our test. “Keep reading."

On the
other side of the glass pane, the scientists can see my brain lighting
up as I read on paper and as I read on a screen. Regions light up in
different ways, Marker says.

Komisaruk discusses what her research could do for the future of
humankind. “We need to know
if reading on screens is going to be good if it replaces all our
reading on paper.”

Marker's lab has paid me a
$100 subject fee, so I want to give them their money’s worth.

After all, it’s not easy to get funding for this stuff — Marker
says she spends at least half of her time applying for grants.

“There’s no premium on studying paper reading modes versus
screen-reading modes in this society,” she tells me
as Smith murmurs, “What do you expect? The gadgetheads want to take over.”

When the tests are over, Market tells me the data takes two hours to
convert, but it can take much longer to
make sense of it.

“We’ll be at this for a while,” she says.

One of the biggest conundrums turns out to be a nagging
question for all mankind: What if reading on screens is not good
for retention of data, emotional connections and critical thinking skills?

Marker begins slipping more and more
into her thoughts. “Neurons, little bags of chemicals, create
awareness,” he says, “but how? How does the brain create the mind?
What is reading, really?”

I see that at the heart of all her research, there is a
philosopher trying not only to understand reading, but also figure out
the nuts and bolts that make up the human experience.

“It’s the hard question I want to answer,” she says. “What creates

“I find that,” she adds, “and I find the Nobel Prize.”
Danny Bloom says:
June 20, 2010 at 1:38am
And as Mike Shatzkin told me when i told my views on paper vs screen reading, he said: "Danny, you may very well be right, but just as nobody heeded the calls that radiation and cancer might impact cell phone use, do you think makers of device readers will listen to you or even care if you are right? No way!"
Danny Bloom says:
June 20, 2010 at 1:34am
This is a very important essay, Dr Wolf. It is my hunch that reading on screens is not "reading" per se, but a new form of human reading, and I call it "screening" for now until a better word comes down the line, and it will, someday. Soon. I have been trying to alert the media and newspapers to this but not one reporter will interview me. I have contacted Newsweeka and Time and the NYTimes and Atlantic and the Boston Globe and not one outlet will publish my eccentric views on this. But watch: future MRI scan studies at Tufts and UCLa will prove that reading on paper surfaces lights up different parts of our brains vs when we read on screens and that reading on paper is vastly superiod for processing of info, retention of info, analysis of info and critical thinking about the info read. I have no PHD so nobody listens to me, but let some Times reporter interview Dr Wold and Dr Tenner and Anne Mangen in Norway, and Paul Saffo and Kevin Kelly and Marvin Minsky, they all agree with me. The Times will listent to them. Sharon Begley at Newsweek is writing a big cover story about this now. As in the New York Times Sunday magazine and Time has a summer cover on this too. See more at my blogs. - Danny Bloom, Tufts 1971

To sum up: reading on screens is not reading per se. it is a new form of human reading, vastly inferior to paper reading. but what does this mean for the future of civilization and does anybody care? I do.
Orion says:
June 19, 2010 at 1:34am
I wonder whether we are seeing a change in the culture of reading, or rather that because of the increasing populations that have access to the internet, those who weren't readers before or were unskilled readers, now just have a more noticeable presence?
Nick Desbarats says:
June 18, 2010 at 9:27am
Interesting piece, however I would like to offer a counter-example of one -myself.

I'm 40, got my first computer when I was 9, and am therefore among the oldest people to "grow up digital". I went straight into high-tech, and currently run a small software company. By the time I was 38, I had read perhaps 25 books of my own accord, providing yet another data point to support a fear of the danger you describe.

About a year and a half ago, however, I bought an iPhone and downloaded an audiobook, on a whim. Since then, I have listened to at least a book a week, including many that require fairly deep reflection and cognitive engagement, such as those by Steven Pinker. I now "read" voraciously.

My story, I believe, suggests that the following may be true:

1) The brain (or at least, my brain) is able to rewire itself in a remarkably short period of time, and at a remarkably late age, to engage deeply with complex ideas from other people. It just needs to be exposed to ideas that it finds extremely engaging.

2) "Skimming" has enabled me to "shop for ideas". The easy access to 2-minute videos, one-paragraph summaries, etc. of ideas enabled me to zero in on the ones about which I wanted to read (or rather, listen to) an entire book. For me, the sound/video/text bites were the gateway to deeper cognitive engagement, not a barrier.

I wonder how many people have actually been encouraged to delve deeply into an idea because they were able to quickly sift through thousands of others in order to find the ones about which they, personally, want to know a lot more?
JL Rivers says:
June 16, 2010 at 8:29am
The questions and worries posited in this article are the foundation of Nicholas Carr's new book, The Shallows. In this book he presents evidence from a long list of scientists and studies that promote the idea that reading in digital form is affecting not only the way we process information, but also how much the time and effort we are willing to spend on reading is changing for the worse. Deep thought and understanding are becoming the casualties of getting our information from a new medium.
Gene Cassidy says:
June 15, 2010 at 10:49am
Maryanne, this is a wonderful and thoughtful essay. My caveat is that digital information delivery is crude. We marvel at its existence, its ramifications for readers and its increasing portability. But as for building a new information paradigm after the digital earthquake, the ground has not stopped shaking. Thank you for your expert and well-stated thoughts. I hope they lay a foundation upon which digital information will someday stand.
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