Photograph by Hernán Piñera
There’s no question that digital technology presents challenges to the reading brain, but, seen from a historical perspective, these look like differences of degree, rather than of kind. To the extent that digital reading represents something new, its potential cuts both ways. Done badly (which is to say, done cynically), the Internet reduces us to mindless clickers, racing numbly to the bottom of a bottomless feed; but done well, it has the potential to expand and augment the very contemplative space that we have prized in ourselves ever since we learned to read without moving our lips.
The fear of technology is not new. In the fifth century B.C., Socrates worried that writing would weaken human memory, and stifle judgment. In fact, as Wolf notes in her 2007 book Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain, the opposite happened: Faced with the written page, the reader’s brain develops new capacities. The visual cortex forms networks of cells that are capable of recognizing letterforms almost instantaneously; increasingly efficient pathways connect these networks to the phonological and semantic areas of the cortex, freeing up other parts of the brain to put the words we read into sentences, stories, views of the world. We may not keep the Iliad in our heads any longer, but we’re exquisitely capable of reflecting on it, comparing it to other stories we know, and forming conclusions about human beings ancient and modern.
The Internet may cause our minds to wander off, and yet a quick look at the history of books suggests that we have been wandering off all along. When we read, the eye does not progress steadily along the line of text; it alternates between saccades—little jumps—and brief stops, not unlike the movement of the mouse’s cursor across a screen of hypertext. From the invention of papyrus around 3000 B.C., until about 300 A.D., most written documents were scrolls, which had to be rolled up by one hand as they were unrolled by the other: a truly linear presentation. Since then, though, most reading has involved codices, bound books or pamphlets, a major advantage of which (at least compared to the scroll) is that you can jump around in them, from chapter to chapter (the table of contents had been around since roughly the first century B.C.); from text to marginal gloss, and, later, to footnote.
Wolf points out that when it comes to reading, what we get out is largely what we put in. “The reading brain circuit reflects the affordances of what it reads,” she notes: affordances being the built-in opportunities for interaction. The more we skim, the more we’re likely to keep skimming; on the other hand, the more we plunge into a text, the more we’re likely to keep plunging. “We’re in a digital culture,” Wolf says. “It’s not a question of making peace. We have to be discerning, vigilant, developmentally savvy.” And of course we have to be surprised, delighted, puzzled, even disturbed. We have to enjoy ourselves.