Getting lost in a book does incredible things to your brain. Not only does reading make you smarter, less lonely, and just plain happier, but following along with the characters in a great story actually lights up brain circuits associated with whatever the characters are experiencing, giving you one of the world's greatest empathy workouts.

But how many times these days do you actually sink into an old-fashioned paper book for hours (or even 15 consecutive minutes)? Most of us read all day long as we respond to our pinging phones and try to keep up with the never-ending hurricane that is the 24/7 news cycle. But actually read unbroken for large chunks of time? That's getting rarer and rarer.

What are we losing by this change? Does reading dozens of news stories and internet posts every day do the same thing for our brains as one long novel or biography? Not by a long shot, answers Harvard-trained neuroscientist and expert on the science of reading Maryanne Wolf in the UK Guardian.

When it comes to deep reading, use it or lose it.

Human babies are born with a natural capacity to learn to walk and talk. That's not true of understanding written language, Wolf points out. Evolutionarily speaking, making sense of the written word is a much newer skill, so we're not hardwired to master it. Instead, developing the neural wiring to be a proficient readers takes a lot of hard work. Just ask any first grader.

Nor is deep, sustained reading like riding a bike. You don't learn it once and maintain it unchanged over a lifetime, even if you rarely see a bike... or a book. Keeping the reading circuits in your brain working well requires regular exercise. Use it or lose it is true of reading as well as muscle tone.

Or, in other words, skipping long-form reading in favor or skimming through short articles and posts rewires your brain. And not in good ways.

How skim reading contributes to fake news

Wolf runs through a ton of research on students that show the effects of less time spent in the company of books, from a Norwegian study showing we remember less when we read from a screen as opposed to the page, to one from California that proves skimming (where the eyes follow an F or Z pattern across a text looking for the most important details) is the "new normal." And that, Wolf stresses, is a huge loss for our brains.

"When the reading brain skims like this, it reduces time allocated to deep reading processes. In other words, we don't have time to grasp complexity, to understand another's feelings, to perceive beauty, and to create thoughts of the reader's own," she writes. In short, we don't get the vast majority of the benefits of reading.

And the problem isn't just screen-addled kids. "The subtle atrophy of critical analysis and empathy affects us all," she warns. "It affects our ability to navigate a constant bombardment of information. It incentivizes a retreat to the most familiar silos of unchecked information, which require and receive no analysis, leaving us susceptible to false information and demagoguery." 

Or, in everyday language, it makes us susceptible to groupthink, information bubbles, and oversimplified fake news. Sound familiar?

This problem, at least, is an easy fix.

So far, so gloomy. But Wolf actually ends her article on an optimistic note. Skim reading from screens has its uses, but we also need to remember the irreplaceable benefits of deep reading. If we do, reaping these benefits is easy.

How you read is a choice, and it's one any individual can easily change (yes, you do have the time!). In fact it's as simple as picking up an actual physical book and letting it carry you away. Do so today and you'll not only learn something, but exercise your empathy, strengthen your critical thinking and focus, and heighten your appreciation for beauty.

Those are all things the world could use more of, and all things skim reading from a screen simply can't give you.

Published on: Oct 9, 2018