If you launch a debate between a die-hard ebook fan and a staunch print bibliophile, grab your popcorn and be prepared for a hearty argument. Like almost any other issue, the more ardent the viewpoint, the more logical reasons both sides can find to support their cause. Digital readers often cite the portability, anywhere-access, and instant availability of downloadable titles, while print fans talk about the tangible qualities like turning pages or holding physical books, along with more valid arguments like the lack of distraction or eye strain from a backlit screen.
A new report in The Guardian shows that print fans might have another, far more compelling argument to make their case, though. Neuroscience researchers have conducted studies that point to a possible change in humans’ brains due to the lower interaction rate we are slowly developing with reading.
According to Maryanne Wolf, Director of the Center for Dyslexia, Diverse Learners, and Social Justice at UCLA and author of Reader, Come Home: The Reading Brain in a Digital World, “We know from research that the reading circuit is not given to human beings through a genetic blueprint like vision or language; it needs an environment to develop. Further, it will adapt to that environment’s requirements – from different writing systems to the characteristics of whatever medium is used. 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.”
Several scholars have already pointed to the harm that today’s style of reading (what Wolf refers to as “skim reading”) is doing, especially to college students who no longer have the patience, attention span, or reading experience to sustain a long-form work of literature. Our constant bombardment with short-form reading like tweets, headline-only posts, and aggregated digests of news or emails may actually be taking us backwards in human development; the neurocircuitry that took cavemen many generations to develop might be dwindling due to lack of use.
The culprit isn’t necessary e-reading, though, but in the rapid-fire nature of what we choose to consume. Devoting time to more involved books in terms of both length and complexity might be what we need to avoid devolving.