The Deep-Reading Brain and the Good Life

What is “deep reading”?

Maryanne Wolf

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Consider a simple insight with large implications: Human beings were never born to read. Reading or written language is a cultural invention that necessitated totally new connections among structures in the human brain underlying language, perception, cognition, and, over time, our emotions. The reading brain circuit emerged, which became a vehicle like no other for ever more elaborated connections, which gave literate humans an evolving platform for the development of new thought. Reading represents one of the most important epigenetic breakthroughs in the history of the species; our very history was made possible by it.

The field of cognitive neuroscience asks how this can happen — cognitively, linguistically, and neurologically: How can the human brain learn a new function that has neither a prewired (genetic) program for unfolding in its environment, nor prescribed dedicated structures like language and vision? The study of the reading brain helps us to understand how the brain learns anything new. We now know, for example, that the brain’s plasticity allows it to rearrange or make new connections among its older structures and to recycle and repurpose neuronal groups within those structures to help us learn to read. The reading brain begins with rearrangement and moves to new purpose. Quite literally, neuronal working groups originally dedicated to face and object recognition are repurposed in the visual cortex to identify letters and letter patterns. These working groups, in turn, become connected to neuronal working groups in language, cognition, and affective regions. Whole new pathways emerge from these connections, through which our brain is altered, our species is altered, and our ability to use past knowledge to forge new thought is propelled.

My work on what is called deep reading explores the range of linguistic, cognitive, and affective processes that underlie not only the emergence of creative thought when we read, but also the development and strengthening of capacities like empathy and critical analysis that we can apply to the rest of our lives. Although not exclusive, this range includes entry processes like the use of background knowledge and imagery; analogical and inferential processes that lead to critical analysis; affective processes like perspective-taking and empathy; and finally the generative processes leading to insight and novel thought. With Proust as my boon companion as I write, the acme of deep reading represents that “fertile miracle of communication” that happens when readers use all their cognitive and linguistic capacities to “go beyond the wisdom of the author” to generate their own best thoughts — for themselves and sometimes for us all.

Every time a child learns about helping another from beloved elephant Horton as he sits, clearly, upon “an other’s” egg; every time we pass over into the consciousness of a slave mother faced with losing her “Beloved”; every time we are transported outside the circumference of our own lives to enter the thoughts and feelings of others, we are changed. For the good.

There are no doubt as many conceptualizations of the good life as there are lives that aspire to it, but surely one of the most important pathways to its achievement begins with the desire to seek what is good — for the self, for those we love, for “our neighbor,” for our earth. Such a pathway involves the developing capacity to discern what is good—and just and true—at any moment, under all the circumstances of our lives. There are few better petri dishes for the development of these two precursors to the good life than the deep reading processes, where we hone analogical reasoning, experience the feelings of others, sharpen our discernment, and build a base of knowledge that allows us to think and feel in ever deeper, more expansive, and more generative ways.

We would be the worst of fools if we would ever lose this extraordinary capacity to go beyond the limits of past thought and past prejudices. And yet that is a danger we face today, largely unaware, as we move through the present, great transition from a literate to digital culture. Deep reading, like the reading brain circuit itself, is not a given; it is built by use, or it atrophies from disuse. Our culture plays an often unseen set of roles that we need to examine if we are to preserve this capacity. For, the intrinsically plastic nature of the circuit means that there can and will be different reading circuits, depending on the writing system, the instruction received, the medium, and what we do when we read.

In other words, our evolving reading brain is a mirror that reflects what is being demanded of it by the medium. The medium is the message to the cortex. If the attributes or affordances of the screen in a digital culture are characterized by speed and efficiency, multi-tasking and attention switching, and a growing reliance on external platforms of knowledge, our reading brain will begin, imperceptibly, to take on those characteristics and make less use of others. There are consequences to whatever we do. Deep reading processes require considerable attention, time, and effort, both in their formation in our young, and also in their allocation by us, the expert readers. These processes will be sidelined without a cognitive flinch by us if our reading circuits allocate less time to them. It is one thing for expert readers to diminish their use of deep reading processes; it is another if they never come to be formed in our young.

Other cultural factors contribute to the potential for such an unwanted outcome. In a milieu that bombards its members with a glut of information from multiple sources, the omnipresent temptation for many of us is to reduce this glut by retreating to the familiar silos of easily digested, less dense, less intellectually demanding information. The illusion of being informed by a deluge of eye-byte-size information can trump the critical analysis of our complex realities.

Time is another cultural variable. Alberto Manguel once said that reading represents the geometric progression and analysis of everything we’ve read before. Not anymore. Many of us, after six to 12 hours before a screen, no longer possess the time to concentrate sufficiently on what we read in order to prioritize and consolidate it, draw analogies and inferences from it, or make optimal use of the content. It is a complex scenario that requires the full scrutiny of our society on all the positive and negative aspects in our almost complete transition to a digital culture.

Although I am by intent describing the potential for a “worst case” scenario here, there are choices before us if we are to preserve the deep reading brain as we know it. And there is the responsibility that comes with great change. Within this context, the “strong hypothesis” here is that if we are not vigilant, cognition will alter with little realization by most; the quality of our attention will change along with different forms of memory; and comprehension for complexity will change. Over time, there will be downstream effects on the quality of our background knowledge and of our understanding of others, which is the basis for seeking the “good” and discerning the “truth” of whatever we read or do next. The ultimate effects of such threats to how we process information and knowledge would weaken the basis of a thoughtful, empathic citizenry — the foundation of our democracy. Figuratively and physiologically, we will not be the wiser.

In Four Quartets, T.S. Eliot asked, “Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? Where is the knowledge lost in information?” Poets, philosophers, and cognitive neuroscientists have different ways of asking us to examine how we think, how we feel, and the consequences of both for the quality of our lives. The study of the deep-reading brain is our newest canary in the mind’s mine. It teaches us that how we read will influence what we read and what we read will influence how we think, feel, and aspire to the good life — and how we define it.