"Deep reading" is good for citizenship - but we need "deep screening" too. Time to cultivate a "bi-literate brain"


Thought-provoking piece about how our screen life may be damaging our ability to read deeply, and cope with complex prose. As a blog, involved in public advocacy about a new politics, we’re aware that we have to give busy people quick entry points into big topics. The science in this piece is interesting and worth exploring. 

But we were particularly interested in the proposal at the end, which makes this more than handwringing about tech and shortening attention spans, and gives us something to work on, in terms of our communications:

First the science:

As work in neurosciences indicates, the acquisition of literacy necessitated a new circuit in our species’ brain more than 6,000 years ago. That circuit evolved from a very simple mechanism for decoding basic information, like the number of goats in one’s herd, to the present, highly elaborated reading brain. 

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.

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.

…Ziming Liu from San Jose State University has conducted a series of studies which indicate that the “new norm” in reading is skimming, with word-spotting and browsing through the text. 

Many readers now use an F or Z pattern when reading in which they sample the first line and then word-spot through the rest of the text. When the reading brain skims like this, it reduces time allocated to deep reading processes. 

In other words, we don’t have time to grasp complexity, to understand another’s feelings, to perceive beauty, and to create thoughts of the reader’s own.

The piece reports from universities and other learning establishments that students are experiencing “cognitive impatience” with 18th and 19th century texts. However it ends not with a lament, but with a challenge:

The story of the changing reading brain is hardly finished. We possess both the science and the technology to identify and redress the changes in how we read before they become entrenched. 

If we work to understand exactly what we will lose, alongside the extraordinary new capacities that the digital world has brought us, there is as much reason for excitement as caution.

We need to cultivate a new kind of brain: a “bi-literate” reading brain capable of the deepest forms of thought in either digital or traditional mediums.

A great deal hangs on it:

  • the ability of citizens in a vibrant democracy to try on other perspectives and discern truth;

  • the capacity of our children and grandchildren to appreciate and create beauty;

  • and the ability in ourselves to go beyond our present glut of information to reach the knowledge and wisdom necessary to sustain a good society.

How would we cultivate such a “bi-literate” brain, and add “deep screening” to our “deep reading”? It’s not such a nerdy, marginal pursuit as it sounds. There are powerful forces trying to “nudge” and “frame” our perceptions, the narratives that guide our life - as consumers, as workers, as citizens. We need to cultivate as much cognitive and mental strength, autonomy and resilience as we can, to guide our way through this mindscape, and seize a better society and world.

We made attempts last year - in our festival events, and also our public exploration of the politics of virtual reality - to think about the impact on political consciousness of new technologies, communicational and immersive. We have barely scratched the surface of the computer games space. And we hope to be developing all this further in 2019.