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Reading is vital to the development of the human brain, but how we read – whether we read words printed on paper or words lit electronically on a digital device – may be more important still. The question is whether you should find that chilling.

Maryanne Wolfe, a professor in UCLA’s Graduate School of Education and Information Studies, recently wrote in an article for The Guardian – “Skim reading is the new normal. The effect on society is profound” – about research by her and others that has disturbing implications for the ability of people to comprehend what they are reading, to think critically and to act rationally.

“My research depicts how the present reading brain enables the development of some of our most important intellectual and affective processes: internalized knowledge, analogical reasoning, and inference; perspective-taking and empathy; critical analysis and the generation of insight,” Wolf wrote. “Research surfacing in many parts of the world now cautions that each of these essential ‘deep reading’ processes may be under threat as we move into digital-based modes of reading.”

Why should it make such a difference whether you are holding a paper book and turning physical pages rather than holding a Kindle and swiping left?

In part, Wolfe wrote, some research suggests that the physical sense of holding a book or newspaper and turning a physical page adds a spatial sense that helps the brain file the information away.

Other research suggests that it may be related to what paper does NOT do: enable you to stop reading and check Facebook, or text messages, or Twitter, or anything else you can do on an internet-connected device. Such multi-tasking trains the brain’s “reading circuit” how to behave, Wolf wrote.

“If the dominant medium advantages processes that are fast, multi-task oriented and well-suited for large volumes of information, like the current digital medium, so will the reading circuit. As UCLA psychologist Patricia Greenfield writes, the result is that less attention and time will be allocated to slower, time-demanding deep reading processes, like inference, critical analysis and empathy, all of which are indispensable to learning at any age,” she wrote.

This has enormous implications for what people will and won’t be able to do in all spheres of life – at school, at work, in personal interactions, in daily life. As Wolf wrote, people become impatient for quick bites of information and can’t devote the time it takes to understand something complex – including not just literature but such things as wills and contracts.

More disturbing, think of what this means for our ability to maintain a unified and relatively civil society. Consider all we know now about disinformation campaigns on social media. How much worse could things be as the ability to critically analyze information becomes increasingly rare?

“The subtle atrophy of critical analysis and empathy affects us all. It affects our ability to navigate a constant bombardment of information. It incentivizes a retreat to the most familiar silos of unchecked information, which require and receive no analysis, leaving us susceptible to false information and demagoguery,” Wolfe wrote.

Despite all that, Wolfe sounded a hopeful note: “There’s an old rule in neuroscience that does not alter with age: use it or lose it. It is a very hopeful principle when applied to critical thought in the reading brain because it implies choice.”

Cynical journalist that I am, though, I can’t help but see Wolf’s article through the lens of how the innovations of the digital revolution have disrupted my own industry and left it perhaps permanently diminished. My reading brain lingers on this passage:

“As MIT scholar Sherry Turkle has written, we do not err as a society when we innovate, but when we ignore what we disrupt or diminish while innovating.”

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