Intervista a Maryanne Wolf
One of the most prominent and eminent reading scientists answered our questions about the power of reading and its effects on the human brain and thinking, starting from her latest book, Reader, Come Home. The Reading Brain in a Digital World (HarperCollins, 2018)
In your book, you explain that the practice of reading, which is in itself unnatural, allows the brain to go beyond its original functions to form a completely new circuit dedicated to reading.
Do you have evidence of other phenomena in human history (behavioural, cultural, social, etc.) so incisive as to have determined the creation of new neural circuits?
My other book, Proust and the Squid, begins, in the first line, with the quote: «we were never born to read».
Well, we were also never born to do algebra, or to do sophisticated calculations. Numeracy and literacy are both cultural inventions that require a new brain circuit that represents a new arrangement or set of connections among existing parts of the brain. In my latest book, Reader, Come Home, there is a picture I would like to show you.
As you can see, some regions of the brain already exist for other functions. Like the visual system and language system. Other regions have to do with our ability to think and make hypotheses, our ability to feel, and to move. All those functions had their own connections, but they were all never connected in one single and unique circuit for the purpose of reading.
The reading circuit, therefore, is made of many networks that already exist. In the beginning, it is just like very primitive connections between vision and language systems, and then it adds motor, affect, feeling, and so on. What reading did was to make it possible for all those systems to influence each other, to come together. Alberto Manguel said that what is so special about reading is that it increases its own capacities for making connections. He used the phrase «like geometric progression». Beautiful term, isn’t it?
Thus, in the beginning, when a child reads, he or she is simply putting a visual symbol and a sound together. Then when the child encounters a word, there is the addition of meaning and grammar. In this way, we steadily add new linguistic and cognitive processes. Over time, we begin to become readers who add many more time-consuming and sophisticate processes.
In fact, the practice of reading shapes who we are. We humans are analogy makers. This is who we are. Our basic process is to take what we know, whatever it is, and to build something new starting from what we know. There is a sort of reciprocal relationship between new and old information. When we are reading, we are entering the realm of analogy making and we are building up the circuit at the same time. This is the reason why the act of making an analogy builds our base of knowledge. From this platform we begin to be able to make inferences, deductions, inductions and – most importantly, with regard to the legal system – critical analysis.
In fact, the practice of reading shapes who we are. We humans are analogy makers. This is who we are. Our basic process is to take what we know, whatever it is, and to build something new starting from what we know
Of course, all of this requires time. Of a particular sort: extra milliseconds of brain processing. That is why in a digital culture, my biggest worry is that we have all begun to “skim-read” the glut of information we receive and not expend those precious extra milliseconds of time. If we try to read Italo Calvino skimming on a screen, we necessarily miss some of the most aesthetic aspects of written language. Further, we miss details and the sequencing of information when we “word-spot”, which can cause us to misinterpret what we are reading. We think: “oh we’ve got the gist”, but actually, we do not have sufficient information to really analyze it carefully enough, to discern truth from falsehood. In my opinion, the biggest problem is that we don’t even realize what is happening to us: we simply don’t understand we’re missing important information. On the contrary, and worst of all, we think we know.
This may well remind you of Socrates’ lament, when he was so worried about reading. In some ways, he was right. For example, he said: «we should not read because our youth will have the illusion of knowledge before they’ve ever worked for it». Of course, he did not know anything about the reading brain circuit but he was absolutely right about the potential to short-circuit knowledge. When you skim read, you have the illusion of knowledge. You have the illusion of even truth, but actually, you have not begun to evaluate the information sufficiently to distinguish between truth and falsehood.
There is another thing I did not mention yet, which is also important to your work in the legal field: I refer to the so-called “deep reading processes”. In a few words, we could say that deep reading processes are all the things that go beyond basic decoding. In fact, they go beyond that basic circuit by adding analogy, inference, deduction, induction and critical analysis and two more things. When we start reading, as children, we read a lot of stories and books that give us the capacity to enter the perspective of another person whom we would never ever meet. What we read turns us into a sort of “repository”, or an encyclopedia of information, which not only makes us who we are, but also shapes how we think.
Among the processes of deep reading, there is also the development of empathic skills (i.e., the ability to take on the emotional perspective of others). In fact, through reading, we learn to feel what another person feels and thinks in another epoch, in another religion, in another culture. I think that one of the greatest problems in our society is that people too often do not know about others. Our history shows us many sad examples of this attitude in the past. Just think about the Weimar Republic, which was based on making Jews, communists, and anyone who thought differently, public enemies. They were called traitors; they were called “others”. They were made objects of fear.
Well, I firmly believe that reading can help us understand the point of view of others as an antidote to fears and prejudices. As I already said, by reading, we learn who others are and others became a part of the perspective-taking processes within our reading circuit. This is extremely important. The development of empathy is one of the great gifts of the reading circuit.
In fact, empathy enriches our knowledge by adding emotion to reason. We all know the famous phrase of Blaise Pascal: «the heart has reasons which reason doesn’t know».
I firmly believe that reading can help us understand the point of view of others as an antidote to fears and prejudices. As I already said, by reading, we learn who others are and others became a part of the perspective-taking processes within our reading circuit. This is extremely important. The development of empathy is one of the great gifts of the reading circuit
When Barack Obama was asked about how he had learned empathy, he said: through novels. Novels taught Obama, in his words, that everything is not black and white, and there’s so much grey. The novel taught him about others. In my book, I also recall the words of the writer Marilynne Robinson, who noted that the trend towards seeing other as enemy is the greatest threat to our democracy. And, mind you, we are talking not only about the past, but also about the present time, and probably the future.
Empathic processes are linked to many other deep reading processes, such as the contemplative function. As I described in my earlier book, Proust and the Squid, Proust wrote that the actual heart of reading is when we encounter the author’s wisdom and go beyond it to discover our own. Contemplative function is the opportunity, offered by what we read, to reflect on what the author’s thoughts generate in ourselves; and then, if we are very lucky, we can generate a novel thought. The human brain has this extraordinary ability to go beyond its own set processes to make something new.
Pascal also said that there is nothing new under this earth, but there is rearrangement. This is exactly what our brain is doing: it is rearranging its networks. It is not building a new lobe; it is just shaping a new circuitry by rearranging its parts, which already existed. Nevertheless, there are also new connections, and that is where Pascal is wrong. We have some amazing data that show how these connections exist in literate people versus non-literate people. However, be careful: this does not mean that a non-literate person – look at Socrates – does not have the capacity for great knowledge. It rather means that, when we learn to read, we also learn to process information in a different way that allows us to consolidate knowledge over time. Reading, the invention of literacy, democratizes knowledge for a society.
When we learn to read, we also learn to process information in a different way that allows us to consolidate knowledge over time. Reading, the invention of literacy, democratizes knowledge for a society
From what you are saying, we understand that it is very important for us to be aware of what happens into our brain because of reading. Nonetheless, if I have understood correctly, sometimes there is a lack of awareness. On the one hand, we often live under the illusion of knowledge; we are – wrongly – convinced that digital reading makes us able to learn many things in a very short time. On the other hand, we are often unaware of our fears.
Within this framework, can reading practice be helpful in making us more aware of what we do not know and what we are scared of?
Paradoxically, we would think that the more information and the more knowledge, the less fear. This might seem to make sense. Unfortunately, however, things are quite different. Nowadays, we have access to a lot of information. Too much, actually. Then we tend to go to our familiar sources or silos of information. We select what is most comfortable and easy to us. Therefore, we see things from one angle alone. This is one of the biggest problems with the media – public television, newspapers, and internet – today; by selecting information, we lack the overall view. We all end up selecting our familiar information sources. As we know, knowledge is time-consuming, and we do not have time for that. In addition, what’s worse, we think speed is knowledge.
I noticed that this is happening to me, too. Most of the time, especially if the purpose is not that important, I just read on the screen and I skim. However, this approach does not give us the quality of thought we need. I think we need to seriously consider how we absorb information today, in the digital era. We cannot change the context we live in; we are the inhabitants of a digital age. Rather, we must ask ourselves: what are the best ways of teaching our children, so they can learn how to read deeply? We adults can do this, but the very young people do not. In my book, I mention an interesting study of over 171,000 young people, from different cultures and countries, between 2000 and 2017. They were all given the same task, which was to read the same content on print or on a digital screen, and then they were asked to answer some comprehension questions. What the researchers found out was the children who read the printed book understood its contents much better.
Ultimately, we really should ask ourselves what we can do to preserve the best of our civilization and our culture – especially for the new generations – and to preserve a democracy where all voices are heard.
In your book, you also mention some positive aspects related to the progressive shift from a culture based on printed texts to a digital culture. Can you give us some examples?
Well, I think we should make a distinction between the quality of what we read and the way we get the information. Technology can give us access to a huge amount of information coming from every part of the world. That is an enormous leap forward in many different fields – legal studies, medicine, neuroscience, etc.; I can know almost instantly a new study from somewhere in Japan, for example. It offers us a chance for a democratization of knowledge like never before in our history of the species.
Generally speaking, however, I do not support a great deal of digital reading in the first ten years of childhood. There are caveats: for children and individuals with dyslexia, technology provides us with a lot of new ways of helping them acquire knowledge as they are slowly learning how to read. There are all kinds of really good things about technology. The problem arises when technology is seen as the answer to the question of education. Such unitary thinking about the complexities of education can be extremely superficial.
In your opinion, can reading help to improve the quality of the decision-making processes of judges and, more generally, of other legal practitioners (e.g. lawyers)? If so, how?
I think there are al least three deep reading processes that are extremely important with regard to the legal system. More specifically, I refer to i) empathy skills, ii) critical analytic skills, and iii) contemplative functions. The combination of the three makes it possible to put together all the information we have. In a word, brainstorming. This is crucially important in the judiciary context, when difficult cases need to be resolved, and you have many clues to be put in connection with each other. Justice is not simple, and I think that an important part of education, in the pursuit of justice, should be to improve those cognitive skills and to be vigilant about using them, particularly when bombarded with too much information.
Justice is not simple, and I think that an important part of education, in the pursuit of justice, should be to improve those cognitive skills and to be vigilant about using them, particularly when bombarded with too much information
With specific regard to the new generations, what does your research suggest about the possibility of modelling the “circuits of reading” of young people, through digital tools?
In my new book I express my thoughts about this. In my view, we should work to build what I call a “biliterate reading brain”. In a few words, I believe we would lay the groundwork for a completely new system for teaching our teachers how to instruct young people. Of course, parents also have an enormous role to play. I do not think they fully realize the importance of the first few years of life – between zero and five years: in fact, in those years the child develops his or her interior life with its diverse cognitive, linguistic and social-affective capacities.
Right now, in California, I am trying to help set up a campaign to raise awareness among parents and families about the importance of spending their time reading, talking, even singing to their babies and young children. In fact, music develops many skills that we did not realize.
Then, for the next five years – age five to ten, I suggest to introduce kids to digital devices, so that they can practice coding, programming and (most importantly) they can learn how to think inferentially and spatially. At the same time, however, it is crucial for them to learn how to read – and to read deeply – from traditional printed books. Without going into the details, there is considerable research about why the “traditional” reading practices are so important in those first ten years.
In doing so, we are making them able read deeply and, in parallel, we are teaching kids the beauty and the potential of digital technology.
How important it is to carefully choose what to read?
It is extremely important. Introducing children to the concept of choice is a fundamental part of the process we are talking about. Children typically choose certain books over and over again, and the parents actually get to know their children better through those choices. In this respect, I believe that the worst thing school can do is not to give choice. As Joseph Epstein said, we are what we read. I would add: we are what we read and how we read. Reading is a source of joy. Of course, we read to pursue knowledge, but we also read for pleasure. And the act of choosing is itself part of the joy.
When we have no choice, and we haven’t learned the pleasure of reading, we actually don’t read as much. Of course, that is a horrifying prospect. I do not even want to think about life without reading, it’s one of the greatest gifts in our species’ history. However, so many of our children and youth today are not reading.
From your words, we understand that the practice of reading can deeply shape our behavior, and more broadly, the way we think. Do you really believe there is a connection between the exposure to violent contents and the development of aggressive behavior, especially amongst young people?
This is a very tricky and complex question. If you look at those who have committed violent crimes in America, we notice that they were often reading online sites which are supporting violence. What we do not know is whether they read other contents and, if so, what.
I can only say – and I am saying this not as a scientist, but just as an observer of my culture – that there seems to be a terribly tragic connection between people who are reading that material and people who have committed the most violent crimes.
And I might add that, for many years, researchers have been investigating a possible link between violent video games and children’s aggressive behaviour, and they have found evidence of such a connection.
For many years, researchers have been investigating a possible link between violent video games and children’s aggressive behaviour, and they have found evidence of such a connection
Does that mean that all video games are bad? Of course, not. Video games – like everything else – have both good and bad aspects. They can improve visual and motor skills, for example. But they also lead ever more insidiously in many young people to addiction that takes them away from their studies, their friends, and their family.
Therefore, it is no easy question. What I am mainly worried about, as I said earlier, is the current trend of relying solely on one source of information. When I say that we are what we read and how we read, I mean that there is also a strong connection between being exposed to only one type of content or type of games and thinking a particular way, which – in a weak and fragile personality – might be the trigger to commit violent crime.
I am thinking, for example, of the tragic case of a young man who, in the USA, shot a group of Mexicans because he believed that the migrants were taking over our country: he was using language from the things that he had read on sites dominated by literature on white supremacy and Fascism. He was also parroting language used by some political leaders who use fear to solidify their supporters.
In short, I do not have an easy answer for you;, my answer would always include that it is necessary to foster critical analytical and perspective-taking capacities in our young. Still more importantly, we must strive to provide our children with multiple perspectives and a firm sense that “others” are only those we do not know yet, but are all part of what makes up the diverse voices of a true democracy.
A final consideration. We were very impressed by the concept of “learned ignorance” you mention in one of the final chapters of your book. Philosopher Nicola Cusano coined the term. It means that, since we have to make decisions in the presence of several conflicting perspectives, the wisest choice is to strive first to fully understand the different positions, and then evaluate and decide on the best path to take. In this regard, you write that, in order to develop Cusano’s scholarly ignorance we ought to «bring together the research of various disciplines – cognitive neuroscience, technology, human and social sciences». In fact, «none of them is in itself sufficient to make the kind of decisions we need; but each one adds something essential to the combination of knowledge we need».
What Nicholas of Cusa taught us through his wonderful words is that we will always be confronted with contradictory truths.
How should we deal with those different truths? This wonderful philosopher suggested that we step outside ourselves and to look at each of the different truths with both empathy and critical thinking. We need, therefore, to suspend our initial judgment, bring all the information together and consider it from multiple perspectives. Of course, this is not an answer to the question of what truth is the real truth, but it’s an approach to truth that can help us today, where too many of our leaders are intentionally disregarding truth in order to gain more power through false promises and falsely raised fears, particularly of “others”.
We need […] to suspend our initial judgment, bring all the information together and consider it from multiple perspectives. Of course, this is not an answer to the question of what truth is the real truth, but it’s an approach to truth that can help us today, where too many of our leaders are intentionally disregarding truth in order to gain more power through false promises and falsely raised fears, particularly of “others”
Within your journal, I believe you are taking a similar approach. You are urging your readers to stepping outside their own disciplines to discover what a fresh perspective from a different viewpoint or discipline would add to their understanding. Indeed with this very interview you are stepping outside the legal sphere, and evaluating what insights from the cognitive neuroscience of reading can add to your own knowledge base. Bravi!
 M. Wolf, Proust and the Squid. The Story and Science of the Reading Brain, Harper Perennial, 2008.
 Our translation from the italian book, p. 158.