This Is Your Brain on “Deep Reading”

This Is Your Brain on “Deep Reading”

My friend Lynn reliably sends me links to relevant and thought-provoking podcasts, often BBC or Frontline. This time, Ezra Klein’s recent interview with neuroscientist and reading specialist Maryanne Wolf about how our brains process information differently when reading print rather than a digital screen. Very, very differently.

First, Dr. Wolf reiterates the point she made in her book Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain, that “there is nothing in the brain, not a single gene, not a single region that is specifically there for reading. That’s very unlike all the other processes that are actually incorporated in reading: language, visions, cognition, affect. What the brain has is the capacity to make novel circuits. And the human invention of reading required a new circuit. So the brain very gradually learned how to connect parts that were there for other reasons and made a new circuit that became the first underlying network for reading very simple symbols 6,000 years ago.”

The two then explore how the neuroplastic brain has continued to evolve more and more complex circuits that allow us to read at different levels of learning and understanding: that we can decode what letters and words stand for, skim for basic content and information, take a perspective and feel  empathy of characters and culture, do a critical analysis of ideas and insights, contemplate and integrate meaning and wisdom.

Any brain can “read” at all of these levels with training and habitual practice. The pivot of our digital age is that people spend less time and pay less attention to what they are reading, (mostly skimming), remember less of what they read, and mull it over even less.  “Shallowing” it’s called.

We now all live simultaneously in both the digital and print worlds and, on any given day, can find ourselves on a spectrum from passively skimming to intentional attention to deep comprehension and contemplation which allows for more integration and memory of what we have just read. Both Klein and Wolf acknowledged how easy it is to slip into entertaining the children with a screen (ourselves!) rather than reading a story, rather than having a conversation, rather than engaging in a dialogue. 

Dr. Wolf suggests creating a “deep reading” habit of 20-minute bookends at the beginning and end of the day. Whatever else demands our attention, 20 minutes of reading poetry, philosophy, spiritual contemplation, to clear the detritus of the day or night before, to center one’s capacities to think, to ground in one’s values. To maintain the evolution of the brain to think, ponder, understand, care. 

After listening to the podcast, and knowing how much I treasure opportunities for long stretches of reading, (granted, easier in a time of retirement to Renaissance than when I was working 50-60 hours/week), I vowed to give myself the time and attention I need to read 100 pages a day. To preserve my brain’s capacity, and my soul’s joy, in doing so.

With great synchronicity, Michelle Obama’s new book The Light We Carry: Overcoming in Uncertain Times, had just been published the week before. I remember how helpful it was, when I fractured my shoulder two years ago, that Barack Obama’s A Promised Landhad just been published a few weeks before. I did get my 100 pages in while waiting in the lobby of the ER. I don’t need an injury now to encourage me to set aside the time for a deep dive into wisdom and insight. May you find your own time for deep reading, even if only in 20-minute bookends, and recover this precious resource for resilience and well-being.