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The Reading Brain in the Digital Era

The Reading Brain in the Digital EraIn a Boston Globe op-ed, Tufts' Maryanne Wolf discusses the need for children of the fast-paced digital age to take the time to develop an "expert reading brain."

Medford/Somerville, Mass. [09.11.07] From educational CDs and DVDs to Internet-based classroom assignments, technology is changing the way children absorb information and cultivate knowledge. The impact of the fast-paced digital world on learning, reading and knowledge growth is a subject that parents, educators and scholars are beginning to examine. In a recent Boston Globe op-ed, Tufts child development expert Maryanne Wolf stressed the importance of literacy in the digital world.

"Literacy is so much entwined in our lives that we often fail to realize that the act of reading is a miracle that is evolving under our fingertips," Wolf, a professor in the Eliot-Pearson Department of Child Development, wrote in the Globe piece. "Over the last 5,000 years, the acquisition of reading transformed the neural circuitry of the brain and the intellectual development of the species."

Today, however, literacy is challenged by technology and the wealth of information it can instantly put at our fingertips, according to Wolf, the author of the new book "Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain." She wrote in the Globe that "the reading brain is slowly becoming endangered - the unforeseen consequences of the transition to a digital epoch that is affecting every aspect of our lives."

She pointed out that this path-the shift from one communication mode to another-has been traveled before.

In ancient Greece, Wolf explained, Socrates found himself at a similar crossroads when writing emerged as an alternative to oral communication. "Socrates argued against the acquisition of literacy," she wrote in the Globe. "At the core of [his] arguments lay his concerns for the young."

The philosopher feared that young people would mistake the absorption and understanding of written information for the cultivation of true knowledge.

"To Socrates, only the arduous process of probing, analyzing, and ultimately internalizing knowledge would enable the young to develop a lifelong approach to thinking that would lead them ultimately to wisdom, virtue, and ‘friendship with [their] god,'" Wolf wrote.

In the digital world, Socrates' concerns for the young have new relevance, Wolf wrote.

"How many children today are becoming Socrates' nightmare, decoders of information who have neither the time nor the motivation to think beneath or beyond their googled universes?" she asked in the Globe. "Will they become so accustomed to immediate access to escalating on-screen information that they will fail to probe beyond the information given to the deeper layers of insight, imagination, and knowledge that have led us to this stage of human thought?"

It is possible, Wolf wrote, that today's children are better off for having to navigate this new digital terrain because they are forced to learn how to multitask and process and prioritize great quantities of information. The demands of information technologies might help children "to develop equally, if not more valuable, skills that will increase human intellectual capacities, quality of life, and collective wisdom as a species," she wrote in the op-ed.

But Wolf explained that literacy and the thirst for knowledge are critical aspects of intellectual development.

"Our already biliterate children, who nimbly traverse between various modes of print, need to develop an expert reading brain before they become totally immersed in the digital world," she wrote in the Globe. "Children need to have both time to think and the motivation to think for themselves.... The immediacy and volume of information should not be confused with true knowledge."

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