Sunday, April 06, 2014

Brain change: can we still read long-form writing?

From WaPo, some research confirming what a lot of us have observed in our students and maybe ourselves.  Skimming and websurfing is changing the neural pathways of the way we read:
To cognitive neuroscientists, Handscombe’s experience is the subject of great fascination and growing alarm. Humans, they warn, seem to be developing digital brains with new circuits for skimming through the torrent of information online. This alternative way of reading is competing with traditional deep reading circuitry developed over several millennia. 
 “I worry that the superficial way we read during the day is affecting us when we have to read with more in-depth processing,” said Maryanne Wolf, a Tufts University cognitive neuroscientist and the author of “Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain.” 
“They cannot read ‘Middlemarch.’ They cannot read William James or Henry James,” Wolf said. “I can’t tell you how many people have written to me about this phenomenon. The students no longer will or are perhaps incapable of dealing with the convoluted syntax and construction of George Eliot and Henry James.”
Henry James is kind of a special case--there are sentences where you want to say, "Please, Henry, throw me a verb. Any verb will do"--but there's truth to this. I've noticed it in classes. Students can identify skimmable main points, but they don't have a sense of what individual parts mean. I've tried to counter this by slowing down the reading process, not by giving them less work (since, as rational beings, they would likely skim that, too), but by spending more time looking at passages and words.

I wonder, too, whether the popularity of graphic novels and comics has something to do with shifting reading patterns.  Those can be complex visually, but the way the information is presented doesn't train the brain to slow down and do long-form reading.

A lot of people complain that students don't read anymore, but this suggests it's not due to laziness but to brain issues.

And like the people in the article, I've noticed that my natural reading patterns have changed, so much so that I've shut off some social media for now and read books in the morning rather than news, to try to retrain them.

Have you seen this, too? 


profacero said...

This is the theme of my semester. Too late to write about at length now, but -- yes.

pat said...

I can't speak for students, but for myself it's a difficult issue to pin down. In my college days I read lots of famous novels, and now remember nothing about any of them. Was I a better reader than my current students?

Then again, when has anyone had time to sit down and read a whole book? Whatever I read, no matter its original format, is consumed in dribs and dabs in between other tasks. Some of those famous novels were written as serials and meant to be consumed a chapter a month. So is it appropriate to valorize the ability to plow through them as a unit?

I share your concern about students' ability to pick up the meaning of what they read. I just don't think it's the same issue as long-form reading, because I question who has ever done much long-form reading.

nicoleandmaggie said...

Um... I can't read MiddleMarch or Henry James. I don't know who William James is. (And it's not because of length etc., I loved the Pickwick Papers and Barchester Towers and The Three Musketeers series and everything Anne Bronte wrote.)

I'll be concerned when kids can't read Jane Eyre or Pride and Prejudice. You know, books that are actually entertaining and have endings with a good payoff.

Fie upon this quiet life! said...

Online, I typically read blogs that are brief, and the ones that are long, I usually skim unless they are on topics that I find really interesting. That's why my own posts have become shorter. If I don't read really long posts, I figure others don't either.

But then, Shakespeare said, "Brevity is the soul of wit" back in the year 1600-ish. So maybe it's not a new phenomenon.

JaneB said...

I like Middlemarch and adore Trollope! (but never finished a Dickens novel & don't want to, for aesthetic reasons) And write long blogposts because like Mark Twain I lack the time to be brief.

But on the topic, I'd disagree with your last point about the possible effect of graphic novels. I'm a fast reader who still consumes long-form books in the vacations at least but never studied literature for... various reasons. I actually find that graphic novels with their complex arrangement and need to take in and interpret pictures AND words actually require me to slow down my reading pace and engage more with the material to extract the meaning - especially Manhwa and manga written originally in Korean/Japanese, because there is a whole package of cultural language and conventions and assumptions to both the image and the writing which need to be recognised in a more conscious way than in European/American literature back to about the 1500s - before that I also need to do some unpacking, but Shakespeare on most of it's just... there, in the filing cabinet. Learning to read manga has been a very interesting experience, and gave me something of an insight into what it might be like to be a 'typical first gen' student coming to a world dominated by writing and full of assumptions (I'm in STEM not literature but there's surely still a whole cultural package about how things are said and not said).

Belle said...

NicoleandMaggie - it's time to worry. My students can't struggle through P&P, and those few who can don't understand it as satire. I ask students: do you read words, sentences, paragraphs, arguments...? The overwhelming response is "words." They are somewhat relieved to discover that that is why they get nothing out of their reading assignments. It's nothing to them beyond a list of unrelated words.

undine said...

profacero--at least this is an explanation.

pat--Good point. I wonder if long-form reading is some sort of platonic ideal rather than a real thing. To your first point: I read through the entire C.P. Snow Strangers and Brothers series one summer and remember nothing about it, so you're right--this is nothing new.

nicoleandmaggie--Can they still read Jane Eyre? They do still love Pride and Prejudice, for although I don't teach it, students always request that it be added to the syllabus.

Fie--I think you're right. I see long paragraphs on blogs and start to skim, too.

JaneB--great point about graphic novels. I hadn't thought of it that way, but yes, you have to study the composition of the whole to get the meaning. Manga would be a whole different experience because of the cultural assumptions, as you say.

Belle--That is worrisome! They don't always get the jokes in Twain, either. His are easier in some ways, but they struggle with the dialect. said...

I wonder, Fie and Undine, if your unwillingness to read long posts is due in part to the lack of editorial filters applied to online writing. Blogs are not often carefully honed writing.

Democratic communication media like blogs also mean a lot of unreadable writing. And even skilled writers who post regularly are not generating Portrait of a Lady. They're composing journal entries.

Surely skimming is justifiable, more survival mechanism than readerly lack of attention boding neural atrophy?