Learning to read at an early age, the cognitive neuro-biologist and scholar of reading, Maryanne Wolf, immediately became an avid reader and as a grown-up studied literature. After completing her graduate studies she spent a year teaching English in Hawaii and suddenly realising how important reading was, began to think about reading as a process and how it works. Revising her whole life plan, she decided to move away from studying the content of words to focus instead on the science that underlies the process by which words evoke meaning in the mind of a reader. In proficient or what she calls “deep reading”, the empathy that a reader experiences with a narrator, a writer or a character enables the reader to experience whole new worlds of feeling and it was this process from a printed letter on the page to the activated and totally engaged mind of a reader that Wolf decided to set about investigating. Wolf has mainly written for specialised scientific circles yet in her book Proust and the Squid, she presents the results of decades of work to the general reader.
Reading lies at the heart of humanism and the Renaissance is seen as being inaugurated by the writings of Petrach, Dante and Boccaccio. In the writings of these humanists, man was placed centre-stage and the world was no longer seen as a place of trial and temptation but instead as a place that had a value in its own right. In his Decamerone, a series of witty sketches, Boccaccio gave an unprecedentedly realistic depiction of life and people in the fourteenth century. Humour confronts the reader with the fact that different people have different ways of seeing the world and that when different perspectives and different habits collide, the results can be funny. For humour to work however, the different points of view portrayed have to be believably entered into by the writer and the concerns of the protagonists presented in a manner that convinces and is absorbing. Inspired by the writings of ancient authors, writers of the Renaissance avidly studied classical texts, noting how openly discussions were held on such matters as whether the gods existed and if they did exist, were they really as interested in human affairs as was generally supposed? Writing further has the capacity to allow a reader to enter into the worlds of complex characters who may be anything other than open, accessible or sympathetic. In reading a writer’s reconstruction of a character’s thoughts, fears and concerns, we are miraculously endowed with the facility to enter into the mind of a person vastly different from ourselves and are able to understand why they think and feel as they do. The reading and writing of quality literature thus lies at the heart of humanism. Coupled with this is the ability to examine and compare texts, bringing our critical faculties to bear on what they have to offer.
When we read and become totally immersed in what we are reading, another world opens up that transcends the printed letters on the page and the firing synapses in our brains. Whether this other world is forever, is a moot point but it is clearly very different from the physical processes that engender it. Reading gives our imagination wings with which to fly and enables us to go to embark on journeys that transcend the bounds of time and place. This is the magic, not only of reading but indeed of the human imagination in general. Amazingly the human brain has the capacity to bring into being, abstract spaces of its own, where we think and imagine and where, when we read, we follow what is going on so clearly that we can become emotionally involved with a story and its characters. In other mental spaces, scientists formulate and think out their hypotheses and mathematicians ponder proofs and the properties and relationships between numbers. Examining the neurobiology of the reading process Wolf found that during reading, the speakers of different languages use the different parts of the brain that are involved in reading to varying extents. This reflects the fact that during processing, different languages place different demands on different parts of the brain. These results are based on comparisons between languages such as Chinese which are hieroglyphic and European languages which use alphabets. Wolf’s interest in what happens in the brain when we read, also led her to consider the complex phenomenon of dyslexia when, at the learning-to-read-stage, an inability is encountered and reading is learnt using other channels. That the speakers of different languages use different neurological pathways suggests the possibility that there may well be a neurobiological difference between reading from the page and reading from a screen, with the former enabling a deeper and more engaged approach that the latter does not give and never will give. Although so far, there is no conclusive evidence that reading from a screen uses neurological pathways that result in cursory scanning styles of reading where the content is skimmed over, the circumstantial evidence is both convincing and alarming. For Wolf, the culture of deep reading and reflective, critical analysis are in the process of being undermined by the superficial scanning and cherry-picking styles of reading which have become widespread due to ever more material being read on screens. This in turn influences how we introduce our children to reading and how we teach them to approach reading. Wolf points out that the value of bedtime stories is that in a secure and reassuring environment, a child is introduced to the world of reading. The repeated experience of lying in bed or sitting on a parent’s lap and being read to sends invaluable emotional signals that are essential for the future development of an in-depth relationship to reading and the written word. Electronic devices are, Wolf argues, no replacement for the physical contact and quality time that a parent’s lap and a reassuring voice can offer.
In addition to the difference between reading from a screen and reading from a printed book, the ability to concentrate is being further eroded through people’s uncontrolled urge to check their mobile phones. According to a report carried out in 2008 the average attention span of adults in Britain was found to be a little over five minutes. This Wolf says is to be put in context by considering that this is barely half of the value obtained ten years before. A more recent study of people in their twenties in the USA revealed that mobile phones were being checked between 150 and 190 times a day and dividing a sixteen-hour day by this latter figure results in a day consisting of 190 five-minute periods. Current studies however have shown that the five minute attention span has further dwindled with smart phone users checking their phones every two minutes. Regardless of whether the effects of this on our ability to deep read are direct, indirect or negligible, it is clear that our capacity for musing and pondering on problems cannot be anything other than massively compromised and that this is cannot be anything other than negative – both for the individuals in the long term as well as for society as a whole. Without the ability to ponder on a problem there can be no “Eureka!” and if, prior to his nap, he had not been pondering, Newton’s apple would have been just another apple falling from a tree. For Tristan Harris, one-time design ethicist at Google but now the director and co-founder of the Center für Humane Technology, the dependency of people on their appliances is humanity’s most pressing problem. This is indirectly confirmed by the fact that in Silicon Valley, the wealthy elite send their children to schools where teaching is done without the aid of technological props and where for pupils, all electronic devices are banned. For Harris parasitic tech platforms are out of control and through the addiction of people to social media pose an urgent, existential threat to society. The root of the problem lies in the use of free services. Funded by advertising, this has resulted in a race for our attention which is the underlying cause for what Harris calls “human degrading”. The full scope of these alarming developments and how one can protect oneself from them are available for downloading and proper reading at www.tristanharris.com and www.humanetech.com. The same theme is explored by Bruno Patino in his book, The Goldfish Civilisation (only available in French). Goldfish kept in captivity are reckoned to have an attention span of eight seconds and so as they swim round and round their aquarium, experience it as an endless journey of discovery and are blissfully unaware that their boundaries are in fact severely limited.
Confirming these concerns, a study has shown that people who grow up with smart phones expect a new impulse every nine seconds and that if this does not happen their attention begins to wander. The clear message is that instead of beings equipped with imaginations that have the capacity to soar and fly, we have become goldfish caught in a bowl of glittering devices that confine us.
The roots of Wolf’s fears concerning the future of deep reading and genuinely critical thinking are further endorsed by Maria-Anna Schulze Brüning and Stephan Clauss who in their book, If You can’t Write You’ll be Left Behind – Why our Children Fail to Learn (only available in German), discuss the way in which children learn to write. The context of the work is on the one hand a series of reforms that were supposed to simplify the learning of joined-up writing as a response to older systems being seen as authoritarian and out-dated. It is however also a paediatrician’s reply the lobbying that is going in the German-speaking world for education to be digitalised at all levels without trial programs or indeed without anything detailed having being worked out at all. As one might expect the push for digitalisation in the classroom comes from the IT and computer industries, with teachers and experienced paediatricians being relegated to the side wings of what is an exceedingly dangerous experiment. In their book, Schulze Brüning, who is an experienced teacher and Stephan Clauss, who is a journalist well versed in the field of education, argue that writing and our approach to writing is the result of a physical process that initially involves our whole upper bodies, in particular the hand-eye co-ordination system. It is they argue, imperative that the skill of writing by hand be taught properly at schools. Once mastered, it enables school and learning to be enjoyed and is extremely important in the establishing of an ability to grasp contexts and make connections between things. As the body grows, the brain learns by doing things with its body, in this case the hand and it is only in this way that the motor memory switches of the brain are activated and pathways brought into being that establish connections between things. All too often, Schulze Brüning has observed that children with bad, shaky handwriting, are disadvantaged with the disadvantages not being made up for by the use of digital devices – either in the short term or in the long term. Learning to master the art of writing by hand is not something that has been made irrelevant by the fact that adults generally type rather than write. Rather it is an essential part of a long and complex process in which the whole upper body as a motor organ is involved. Returning to reading and the world of the reader, one is reminded that for Proust, genuine learning is always associated with a struggle and the overcoming of a hurdle and this applies to the struggle of a child as it learns both to read and to write. Though the struggle is a long, hard and drawn-out process the gains are immense. Learning to write comes at a time when a child is beginning to hone the fine-tuning of its hand-eye co-ordination skills, with the learning of how to write by hand being an ideal challenge with which to focus the development of these skills. The ability to use hands and fingers precisely, combined with an initiation into the world of the written word are of seminal importance for any child and what is learnt remains anchored at a deep level and is a basis for future learning processes that should not be skipped. As the mathematician, psychologist and cognitive neuroscientist, Stanislaus Dehaene, observes, when learning to read and write, children must learn to repress a reflex that ignores the differences between left and right. For this reason some children go through a phase when, either occasionally or often, they write words backwards and are unaware of doing so. Learning to write joined-up letters by hand teaches children how letters are formed with the result that the differences between letters such as “b” and “d” and “p” and “q” which are often confused, become apparent. Paralleling the arguments brought by Schulze Brüning and Clauss concerning the reforms made to the way that children were taught joined-up writing, in his book, Reading in the Brain: The New Science of How we Read, Dehaene argues against the use of whole word methods of teaching children to read. Neurobiology conclusively shows that children initially learn to read decoding words letter by letter and only once this has been mastered do they move on to recognising syllables and whole words at a glance. Attempting to skip the letter by letter by letter phase results in confusion and disadvantaged readers. Although a child experiences reading in the form of being read to first of all, it would nevertheless seem that at school the teaching of reading and writing are to be seen as belonging together. Learning to write thus appears as an integral part of the learning to read process, if pupils are to become proficient readers. Step by step a child acquires proficiency in understanding what language is, what words mean and how, on paper they may be actively formed and combined to make messages that others can read. Importantly, the gains come in both the short term, such as the triumph of a young child when he or she is able to write their own name, as well as in the future, when books and diaries have the potential to play an essential role in the building up of an inner dialogue that enables us to find out of who we are. Chillingly, Schulze Brüning and Clauss conclude their book with a reminder that in Orwell’s 1984, it is when he begins to write, with his own hand, a diary, that Winston discovers he has he capacity to think his own thoughts and to lead an inner life.
Like Wolf, Schulze Brüning and Clauss, fear that a priceless cultural skill is being endangered through the self-interested lobbying of the IT and computer industries and uninformed teaching strategies conceived of by politicians wanting to be seen as “addressing the future”. Not only is a humanist and environmentally informed view of the world at stake but as Wolf observes, so too is democracy itself. For a democracy to work properly, a population must be capable of critically examining the issues and making informed decisions on complex matters without being manipulated by “spin” and misinformation. Wolf’s book, Reader Come Home, The Reading Brain in a Digital World, consists of nine letters, each of which begins “Dear Reader”. In the letters the author describes how the reading process works, differentiates between deep reading and skimming and cites the evidence summarised above on how attention span has decreased alarmingly over the last few decades. The relation of this to the Renaissance, when everything was seen as a text that was to be read and interpreted and where the world bustled and bristled with meaning and possible interpretations, is that in unified, monotone cultures, dogmas arise, the asking of questions becomes stifled and the danger grows of democracy becoming an empty sham. As Wolf says:
“When language and thought atrophy, when complexity wanes and everything becomes more and more the same, we run great risks in society politic – whether from extremists in a religion or a political organisation or, less obviously, from advertisers. Whether enforced or subtly reinforced, homogenisation in groups, societies, or in language can lead to the elimination of whatever is different or ‘other’. … diversity enhances the advancement of our species’ development, the quality of our life on our connected planet, and even our survival. Within this overarching context, we must work to protect and preserve the rich, expansive, un-flattened uses of language. When nurtured, human language provides the most perfect vehicle for the creation of un-circumscribed, never-before-imagined thoughts, which in turn provide the basis for advances in our collective intelligence.”
For Wolf the danger that we may suddenly end up with a substitute for democracy with genuine democracy being short-circuited through our failure to maintain a culture of deep reading and critical analysis, is growing and is very real. Just as children are capable of growing up learning not just one but two languages, Wolf argues that we should do everything we can to ensure that our children are brought up in a way that results in them being able to jump between two different ways of reading and assimilating written material. The one is the traditional style of reading from printed books in a manner that in an adept reader results in the phenomenon of deep reading. The other is the internet style of rapidly processed quick analyses that allow us, from a wide range of data to form impressions without being overloaded or of becoming bogged down in endless detail. Nevertheless, behind the carefully grounded steps of Wolf’s argument there is the assumption that the future will continue to develop ever-new technologies with ever-increasing speed and that the pace of life can only get quicker and quicker. While this may come to be, it is also what politicians currently peddle as part of a package that will lead to continued prosperity in the western world. As such it is therefore to be questioned and the question asked of what the point is of things being made to happen with ever increasing rapidity. As neither modernism nor the doctrine of ever new technological innovation take a stance on what a human being is or on what the point of life is, it is hardly surprising that neither have an answer as to why there should be endless innovation for the freeing up of ever more time that many people won’t know what to do with. While it may indeed be necessary as Wolf suggests, to foster a dual culture of reading, what as ever is missing, is a conception of what a human being is and what a human being needs to live a happy and fulfilled life. Wolf’s model of how the reading process works hints however, at what, at bottom, we are. Just as in deep reading, a world is engendered and entered into which has nothing to do with printed letters or firing synapses, so too, philosophically we are more than just a bundle of bones, muscles and nerves and each one of us has our own inner emotional and mental lives. Like the dragons in M.C. Escher’s Reptiles which emerge from the artist’s sketch book and cheekily crawl over a book of natural history before climbing up a draughtsman’s triangle and onto a Platonic solid to snort a puff of smoke, a conscious brain is capable of transcending its purely physical aspect.
M. C. Escher, Reptiles, 1943
Rather than attempting to explain this phenomenon away in the form of a dismissal (as so much twentieth century philosophy has done), it is the task of any philosopher who cares about humanity to produce an account that explains the coming into being of the subject and the subjective and accord the subject his/her urgently needed place in the universe. As stated in the Reloading Humanism mission statement, we must return to a more Renaissance orientated view of ourselves and our place in the world. In both her books, Wolf argues that we were never born to read, rather reading is a culturally acquired activity that must be nurtured and fostered. If a truly humanist vision of what a human being is, is to be formulated and embraced, it must emphasise that we are deep readers.