Reader, Come Home | Maryanne Wolf

Summary of: Reader, Come Home: The Reading Brain in a Digital World
By: Maryanne Wolf


In ‘Reader, Come Home: The Reading Brain in a Digital World,’ Maryanne Wolf embarks on a fascinating exploration of how the human brain adapts to the fast-paced nature of modern technology. Technology has transformed our reading habits, shifting our focus from physical books to fleeting digital content. This book probes into the effects this change may have on our neuroplasticity and reading experiences. Are we losing our ability to read deeply in favor of effortless skimming? How do digital devices impact the way children learn to read? Wolf will delve into these questions and discuss our brain’s complex network, deep reading, empathy, multitasking, and the balance between print and digital mediums.

Rewiring Our Brains for Reading

The ability to read is not innate; it is a cultural invention that our brains develop through neuroplasticity. This is the process of creating new neural networks in response to specific needs, such as reading. Reading draws on clusters associated with language and vision and results in the brain developing a new network designed specifically for reading. This process is expedited by the brain’s ability to draw on established networks, which perform adjacent functions. As a result, the neuronal networks for reading vary depending on what language is being used. In essence, reading rewires our brains, and this process never stops, even in response to the digital age.

Deep Reading for Empathy

Reading deeply grants us empathetic experiences as we view the world from different perspectives. However, the decline of empathetic expression in today’s youth is linked to a decrease in deep reading habits, replaced by a surge of online distractions.

Reading has always been a crucial way of understanding another person’s perspective. When we read deeply, we immerse ourselves in a text and construct mental images to make sense of it. Even if these pictures aren’t in the text, we use our knowledge and imagination to fill in the gaps. Ernest Hemingway’s six-word short story “For sale: baby shoes, never worn” demonstrates this ability to trigger meaning beyond the text.

Deep reading also involves perspective-taking, where readers imagine the context left out of a story and view things through a character’s eyes. This empathetic approach helps us empathize with what someone else is going through and broadens our sense of self.

However, the decline in deep reading habits is negatively affecting our empathetic expressions. Empathy in college students has decreased by 40 percent in the last two decades, according to a Stanford University study. The increase in online distractions, leading to less engagement in deep reading and real-life relationships, may be the cause.

To preserve our empathy for others, we need to prioritize deep reading and engage with texts that challenge our perspectives and broaden our horizons.

The Cost of Our Digital Diet

Our constant consumption of digital information is changing the way we read and think, negatively affecting our ability to deeply understand and contemplate ideas. The University of San Diego’s Global Information Industry Center estimates that we consume 34 gigabytes of information daily, causing our attention spans to shrink while our appetite for data grows. This trend of consuming information in short bursts online is impacting our ability to delve deeply into books and requires our attention to be divided into ever-shorter intervals. Such a development has major implications for our ability to understand complex ideas and events that can have profound effects in the long run. The author, a specialist in reading habits, was not immune to this change. Her pile of books began to gather dust, and even her favorite book, Hesse’s Magister Ludi, took perseverance and effort to comprehend once again. Though our digital dependence is detrimental to our cognitive abilities, it is possible to recover our deep-reading skills with patience and persistence.

The Dangers of Digital Devices on Children’s Brains

Rapidly switching between tasks is the norm in today’s world, thanks to our brains’ preference for anything new and attention-grabbing. This mindset triggers the brain’s reward center, making multitasking an addictive cycle. Children, in particular, find it hard to resist short-term rewards due to their developing prefrontal cortex. Digital devices further reinforce this behavior, leading to overstimulation, cortisol and adrenaline release, and ultimately, addiction. Shockingly, most children, even as young as three, spend around four hours daily on digital devices. This reliance on gadgets poses a risk to their brain development, health, and overall well-being. Therefore, we must adopt measures to prevent irreparable brain damage in the next generation.

The Power of Bedtime Stories

Recalling memories of cuddling with a parent while listening to bedtime stories evokes positive emotions, but it also has a cognitive impact on children’s development. The shared attention during storytime helps establish skills that support cognitive, memory, and language development. Repeated exposure to familiar stories builds a storehouse of new words and concepts, facilitating self-reading when they’re five. Unfortunately, digital devices can’t replace the positive sensory experience of being read to. Research studies illustrate that a child’s linguistic development increases vastly when they learn their vocabulary from a real person. Thus, reading to a child predictably influences whether they’ll become an adept reader.

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