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Reader, Come Home

The Reading Brain in a Digital World

By Maryanne Wolf
15-minute read
Audio available
Reader, Come Home: The Reading Brain in a Digital World by Maryanne Wolf

Reader, Come Home (2018) is a meditation on the future of reading in the age of digital revolution and diminishing attention spans. Drawing on the latest neuroscientific research, Maryanne Wolf unpacks the cultural and cognitive dimensions of a technological transformation that’s reshaped our relationship with the written word. At the heart of her investigation is a question whose answer will determine how our societies will look in the future: What will reading mean to our children, a generation which has never known a world without Google, smartphones and e-books?

  • Bibliophiles who wonder why it’s gotten so hard to focus on reading
  • E-readers nostalgic about yesteryear’s paper-and-ink books 
  • Parents worried about their children’s use of digital devices

Maryanne Wolf is the John DiBiaggio Professor of Citizenship and Public Service at Tufts University and the co-founder of Curious Learning: A Global Literacy Project. She is the author of more than 160 scientific publications as well as two books on reading, Proust and the Squid and Tales of Literacy for the 21st Century. She is the director of UCLA’s Center for Dyslexia, Diverse Learners and Social Justice.

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Reader, Come Home

The Reading Brain in a Digital World

By Maryanne Wolf
  • Read in 15 minutes
  • Audio & text available
  • Contains 9 key ideas
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Reader, Come Home: The Reading Brain in a Digital World by Maryanne Wolf
Synopsis

Reader, Come Home (2018) is a meditation on the future of reading in the age of digital revolution and diminishing attention spans. Drawing on the latest neuroscientific research, Maryanne Wolf unpacks the cultural and cognitive dimensions of a technological transformation that’s reshaped our relationship with the written word. At the heart of her investigation is a question whose answer will determine how our societies will look in the future: What will reading mean to our children, a generation which has never known a world without Google, smartphones and e-books?

Key idea 1 of 9

Reading is a skill that we learn as our brains develop rather than an innate ability.

The human brain is a miraculous machine capable of all sorts of astounding feats. Some of that is innate: we’re born with genes that allow our bodies and minds to acquire certain natural abilities without needing to be taught them. Most people, for example, enter the world with an inborn ability to see and hear, as well as with an astounding ability to pick up language. Just think of the sponge-like manner in which children learn to speak by aping the sounds uttered by those around them. 

Reading is an entirely different matter. Unlike speaking, it isn’t hardwired into the brain. That makes it much more like our ability to understand and manipulate numbers: it’s a cultural invention rather than an innate trait. And our ancestors only started reading 6,000 years ago, making it a pretty recent addition to the cognitive toolkit in the grand scheme of human evolution. So how exactly did they – and how do we – learn to read? 

To answer that question, we need to get into the nitty-gritty of neuroscience. As we learn to read, the brain develops a new network specifically designed for that task. That’s a product of the brain’s neuroplasticity – its ability to rearrange and reroute existing neuronal networks to create entirely new ones. 

This kind of cerebral construction work is a constant throughout our lives. The brain is always linking up cell clusters in novel ways. Each cluster within these configurations simultaneously works to support a budding skill like reading. That, in turn, creates a new network. That process is expedited by the brain’s ability to draw on established networks which perform adjacent functions. Reading, for example, draws on cell clusters associated with language and vision. 

But because networks are created in response to specific needs rather than being drawn from some kind of mental masterplan, we all develop slightly different neuronal networks. What they end up looking like depends on what we’re reading and which language we’re using. That means the circuitry in the head of someone who reads in characters like a Chinese speaker will be wired differently to that of someone who’s used to an alphabet, like an English or Arabic speaker. 

Neuroplasticity also means that our ability to read changes over time. In the following blinks, we’ll see how it’s changing in response to the digital age.

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