Sunday, October 7, 2007

Internet And It's Impact On Reading And Thinking.

Have you ever had this...disconcerting feeling that the amount of time one spent online is affecting the way we read, write, assimilate knowledge and maybe, even think? Do you find yourself with a tendency to skim while reading a book or an article in the newspaper as if you are impatient to go..somewhere? How about a general sense of discomfort that your ability to probe and analyze information has somehow been diminished and that it requires further mental effort to force yourself to think deeper and not accept at face value, an article you have read online, when this process used to be automatic.

It was with these thoughts in mind that led me to Maryanne Wolf, a cognitive neuroscientist and professor at Tufts University, whose book "Proust And The Squid : The Story And Science Of The Reading Brain" provided fascinating insights on the impact of digital media, especially the Internet, on reading, thinking and the cognitive development of children.

Proust And The Squid : The Story And Science Of The Reading Brain.
Wolf believes that the the reading brain, formed over the past 5,000 years since the acquisition of reading, is been endangered - an unforeseen consequences of the transition to a digital age that is affecting every aspect of our lives including the intellectual development of children.

Citing Socrates, Wolf explained that the philosopher found himself at a similar crossroads, when writing emerged as an alternative to oral communication. Socrates was against the acquisition of literacy and the core of his arguments rested on his fears that young people would mistake the absorption and understanding of written information for the cultivation of true knowledge. He believed that the seeming permanence of the printed word would delude the young into thinking they had accessed the heart of knowledge rather than simply decoded it. To Socrates, only the arduous process of probing, analyzing and ultimately internalizing knowledge would enable the young to develop a lifelong approach to thinking that would lead them ultimately to wisdom and virtue.

In the digital world, Socrates' concerns for the young have new relevance. "How many children today are becoming Socrates' nightmare, mere decoders of information who have neither the time nor the motivation to think beneath or beyond their googled universes? Will they become so accustomed to immediate access to escalating on-screen information that they will fail to probe beyond the information given to the deeper layers of insight, imagination and knowledge that have led us to this stage of human thought?" she asked.

As a neuroscientist and scholar of reading, Wolf was particularly concerned with the plight of the reading brain as it encounters this technologically-rich society. "We know that no human being was born to read and we can do so only because of our brain's capacity to rearrange itself to learn something new. Neuroimaging of novice readers allows us to observe how a new neural circuitry is fashioned from some of its original structures. In the expert reading brain, the first milliseconds of decoding have become virtually automatic within that circuit. It is this automaticity that allows us the precious milliseconds we need to go beyond the decoded text to think new thoughts of our own - the heart of the reading process." she wrote.

More importantly, Wolf believes that children need to have both time to think and the motivation to think for themselves and to develop an expert reading brain before the digital mode dominates their reading. "The immediacy and volume of information should not be confused with true knowledge and it would be a shame if the very intellect that produced the digital revolution could be destroyed by it," she said.

While the Internet has it's obvious benefits, Wolf's book provided valuable insights on the impact of the World Wide Web on reading habits and thinking processes. Her assertions that children's exposure to the Web should be limited and instead, be expose widely to traditional sources of information like books, magazines and newspapers so as to allow for the development of an expert reading brain and not impede the development of the mind's ability to think, probe and analyze information, is worth considering.

*Related post : Blogging, Society And What It Means To Me


Mark Dykeman said...

Excellent article. This subject has been much on my mind of late and this article sums it up nicely. I believe that this new era on on-line information may also have a detrimental effect on adults.

Thanks for the comment.

My Den said...

Hi Mark,
You have a hand on the door knob when you said it may also have a detrimental effect on adults as one of the reasons that got me writing this post was because i am experiencing some of the effects as stated in the first paragraph of this article, especially when i am reading a book where i seem terribly impatient to turn to the next page.

Another area worth reviewing would be the Web's impact on the increasingly insular views of online communities.

Great to have you here. Hope to hear from you again and take care.

utenzi said...

I've not read Proust and the Squid. Your review of the book is quite good and the book sounds interesting.

While I doubt Socrates is a credible reference, I do admire the technique of using him as a reference point to further Wolf's argument. There has been research indicating that neurological structures are influenced by reading-- but one has to really wonder what their evolutionary value was before reading existed. Pattern recognition of some sort?

My Den said...

This is a whopper of a comment! My limited knowledge on the history and development of reading prevents me from giving you a satisfactory answer. But i will give it a try.

No one (as far as i know) had actually been able to pinpoint the age that reading, as a learned activity, actually started. But the practice of reading appears to be as old as civilization (known, that is.) Written records for e.g, discovered in Babylonia and Egypt, have indicated that reading to be about six or seven thousand years old. And the records also indicated that reading was not at it's infancy then.

With the evolution of reading and writing having gone through the stages of: pictographs,ideographs, phonograms and finally,the alphabet stage, it is almost certain that pattern recognition played an important part in our evolution before reading existed.

But i have a problem with: "..before reading existed" as the many prehistoric pottery, figurines and cave paintings, some dated back to hundreds of thousands of years, seems to indicate that reading and writing has always been around but in a different form.

Other than not being able to give you a satisfactory answer, your comment has piqued my interest in an area that i would, one day, write a post about : The history and development of reading and writing.

Thanks again for dropping by. Take care :}