And This Is Your Brain on Books

A conversation about the rewards of reading and the risks of losing interest

Author: With Maryanne Wolf

Maryanne Wolf is a scholar, teacher, mother and advocate for children and literacy around the world. A longtime researcher and faculty member at Tufts University, she is now at the University of California, Los Angeles. In 2007, she published the landmark book, Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain, which traces the development of language, the written word and its impact on the evolution of the human brain. Its illuminating explanation of reading — from children’s books to classical literature — is a celebration of human thought, artistic expression and the brain’s intricate pathways. Ten years later, having witnessed a changing landscape in modern reading habits, she wrote Reader, Come Home: The Reading Brain in a Digital World, which examines how reading on electronic platforms has impacted the brain. Recently, she was elected a permanent member of the Pontifical Academy of Science, which she regards as her highest honor.

What follows is a loosely edited email dialogue between Wolf, who graduated from Saint Mary’s College in 1969, and the magazine’s editor, Kerry Temple ’74.


Temple: We first crossed paths a few years back, in 2015, when I had written a piece about the value of reading the printed word and quoted from your fascinating Proust and the Squid about humans and the development of the reading brain. I had been told by a couple of administrators about 15 years ago that print was dead and I should start thinking about phasing out the magazine, doing it digitally only. It’s been about 10 years since those conversations, but the trends are clear. Still, I believe people read things in print differently from how they read on a computer screen and now on phones. 

My sense of that is personal. Your perspective is much more informed. 


Wolf: I have never been able to choose between science and literature in my work, and I won’t start now with your question about the fate of print. I’ll give first words to that paraphrase of Mark Twain from his response to his supposed obituary: “The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated.” I would say the same for print and books.

But now I turn to science for my worries about print’s possible demise and already-begun decay. There are important cognitive, physiological and even social-emotional reasons why our species had best not lose print or books for a long while. The reasons begin with the seemingly simple but actually very complicated fact that human beings were never born to read. Kerry, you may remember that was the first sentence of Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain.

The whole book is an explication of that fact and an apologia for the semimiraculous design feature in the brain that can create whole new circuits for new cognitive functions like literacy and numeracy. The beauty of this feature, that is part of the brain’s neuroplasticity, is that we can literally change the brain with these new circuits. In the process we change how we think, how we live our lives, how we go beyond whatever we thought before. Literacy literally changes our brains, which changes the life trajectory of a person, which changes society, which changes our species. 

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Your readers right now may be thinking, what does all this have to do with whether Notre Dame Magazine should go digital or not? Here is where the plasticity that allows the reading brain to develop gets interesting. The reading brain’s plasticity has both Achilles’ great agility and his vulnerable heel. The reading brain is like a shape-shifter with writing systems and will change subtly to reflect the demands of the different writing systems. By the same token, it will also reflect how it is formed over time, whether it remains a pretty basic decoder of information like a child’s reading brain, or a highly sophisticated intellectual platform for connecting our best thoughts and feelings to what we read. Finally, it will also reflect the medium on which it is read. Each medium has its own “affordances” or characteristics that influence how we read. Print has helped us to develop certain time-demanding processes like inference, empathy and critical analysis. These are what I call the “deep reading” processes of the expert reader. Digital mediums have different strengths — like expanding our ability to process large amounts of information rapidly, our multitasking processes and our visual-motor skills.

We are conducting this very dialogue in part due to our capacity to use digital mediums to exchange our thoughts in real time and to access information virtually instantaneously to support or refute our position. We are writing in the middle of a pandemic that has shown how these mediums can support our society and can provide a bridge for our children’s learning when they are forced to remain at home instead of school. I am unutterably grateful for the role that digital mediums play in our world, particularly at this moment in time.

Ah, but there’s a cost: the Achilles’ rub. As my MIT colleague Sherry Turkle wrote, the problem is not that we are creating new, innovative ways of doing things, it is rather that we are not asking what is disrupted or diminished. The cost of digital reading appears to be its diminishment of the time allocated in the brain to the more time-consuming deep-reading processes. My more recent book, Reader, Come Home, is my effort to describe the beauty of the deep-reading brain, the threats to its survival and some thoughts about what to do next. I never thought that my work would be thrust into the educational maelstrom we now face as teachers and parents and students learn firsthand the limits of learning through only digital means. The point is that things get lost when we read on digital mediums, and few of us take the time to examine how we all have changed.


Temple: That’s my concern: what gets lost. Maybe it’s partly due to my fondness for reading books and the places books take us, and how they then live within us. But it’s also partly due to my work as a writer and editor of a magazine that values good writing and the experiences that can bring. People read differently on screens. I think there is more skimming, more looking for the bullet points, the takeaways, everyone in a hurry. There are certainly more distractions, more breaks in the text that inhibit a full immersion in a story. And that full immersion is so important. You spend a good deal of time explaining how we grow into what you call fluent or expert readers, becoming so much more than mere decoders of language. And the value of that — the brain’s incredible achievement and all it means to us as human beings.

But I am concerned about what reading so much on screens, on phones, does to that capacity — what’s being sacrificed. And how that impacts us as readers. If we spend most of our time speed-reading on a device, happily skimming surfaces and jumping around from here to there, then reading a book takes more effort, is harder, less appealing. Attention spans change. Real reading becomes too much work.


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Wolf: All of your intuitions, Kerry, are supported by more and more research. As a researcher who studies eye movements during reading put it, “Skimming is the new norm.” This seemingly innocuous conclusion masks really difficult implications for society. At the core of skimming are the twin issues of attention and time — time devoted to deep-reading processes. When we skim, we simply do not have enough cerebral time to connect the information we read to all the more sophisticated, time-consuming processes that are necessary for critical analysis, empathy and perspective-taking, reflection and insight.

Our species has worked very hard to reach this point in human development, in part because we have successfully taught, practiced and applied these critically analytic and empathic processes to our lives and to the education of each generation. Over time with different levels of success, we have learned to use these processes daily to enable us to discern truth, whether in science, education or government, and to be fair and just to other human beings. Deep-reading processes are hardly a household word, but they are the foundation for thinking and acting with ultimate concern for truth and justice.

Yet if we look around us today, which happens to be January 6, 2022, we see masses of people unable to distinguish truth from falsehood, unwilling to pass over, to use Father Dunne’s extraordinary term for perspective-taking, to others’ viewpoints or experiences. The last thing I ever thought I would see in the evolution of humanity is the blatant disregard for discerning the truth and acting accordingly.

Of course, multiple factors have converged to cause this disregard, but one of them is the erosion of critical thinking and empathy that comes when people use digital mediums for information that simply confirms their own biases, particularly on social media. They skim the familiar sources and accept what is there as “true enough.” In so doing, they fail to analyze, to infer, to question, to reflect, particularly when the information arouses their most basic emotions of fear and rejection and is then quickly followed by further information that reinforces such feelings by repetition. Repetition and arousal replace truth today. It is an algorithm that is used to increase usage in social media, a seemingly innocuous strategy to increase profit. But in the wrong hands, it is also a formula known long and well by demagogues throughout history. Tell people they are great (over and over) but have had their greatness stolen by others (over and over) and label all dissenting perspectives as traitorous. Göring said as much at the Nuremberg Trials.

I can imagine that some of your readers will roll their eyes at my naming people’s skimming on digital mediums as a contributor to the recent assaults on democracy in our country. The very last thing I ever imagined when I began my research was that I would worry about the effects of digital reading’s changes on the health of democracy. There are always many factors that influence how we think and how we act. Nevertheless, examining how digital mediums, particularly social media, disrupt the contribution of deep-reading processes to our thought patterns is essential for our future and for the potential of the next generation to right our wrongs.

Let me end today’s bleaker message with something more hopeful, Kerry. It is a new year as I write, and despite the fact that I am writing you from within a COVID-related quarantine, I have more hope than fear because the very antidote is within our grasp. We must teach the young to think and to feel when they read and to learn to search for the truth, however hard it is to find or to confront. We must teach them to aspire, to imagine, to have their own best thoughts when they read. That is what reading at its best can do for the young and for us all.

Temple: There are so many different questions that immediately come to my mind from what you just wrote, but I was struck by your use of Father John Dunne’s term, “passing over,” to describe one of the deep-reading processes. That concept has actually guided my thinking over the years — the importance of really listening to people as they would like to be heard, whatever their persuasion, religion or life philosophy. It reminded me of my similar surprise to find references to Dunne’s work in both your books. How did that come about?


Wolf: Ah, that is a story within a story. Father John Dunne, CSC, was and is the greatest influence on my professional and spiritual life. I think I have read or reread parts of his books every year, sometimes daily, for the last four decades. He was my teacher at Notre Dame when I took his courses as part of the first Saint Mary’s co-exchange program. It was the Vietnam era and I was torn between the moral and ethical principles that guided my life and caused me to oppose the war and the patriotic beliefs of my family, who supported the war.

At one pivotal point Father Dunne walked around one of the lakes with me and simply listened as I considered going to Canada to accompany another Notre Dame student as a protest of the war. I never knew what happened to that student and always hoped he found peace in his decision. Father Dunne helped me live through that period with my faith intact but changed. His concepts of “search,” “insight” and “passing over” into the thoughts and feelings of others were like spiritual rudders then and ever since.

Later it was his intellectual contributions that became like beacons of light in my pursuit of knowledge bases that were seemingly unconnected to theology or philosophy. His introduction to Stories of God became the foundation for my lifelong study of the poet [Rainer Maria] Rilke. His emphases on the contemplative function as Aristotle’s third life in the good society became a metaphor for understanding what is missing in the life of the “good reader” today. I saw John once a year for 40 years. A few weeks before he died I visited him in the hospital and told him I would be quoting his work in a talk I was to give to the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences at the Vatican. I wanted him to know that his legacy lived on in all of us who learned from him and who now taught others. 

Ironically, during these days of challenge to our species, I have turned to one of his earliest and most demanding books, A Search for God in Time and Memory. Everyone should read the last pages of this book in which, after all the search in a life, one sees a different face of G-d. The last sentence became for me the last line of a novella I wrote during isolation about Mary Magdalene and Christ. “The face of God underlying all is neither the tragic mask nor the comic mask; it is not the wry face of irony; it is the compassionate face of humor.” This is who John is for me: someone who searched and found the face of G-d — smiling and, perhaps, laughing at how long it took for us to find Him, waiting. 


Temple: OK, let me see if I can pull together what may seem to be disparate thoughts but which I think have something in common. When I see young people on their phones virtually all the time, I really wonder when they have time to think. Students today are on their phones as soon as they walk out of a classroom. When I was a student, I spent most of the time walking back to Farley thinking about what I had just heard in class. That helped me absorb and process stuff. Ultimately, that process leads to the big questions, as you say. Concepts of God, for example. Now maybe I need more time to think than most people, or maybe young people today process faster than I do. But what happens to God — waiting — when people stop thinking or living in silence or making time to contemplate all those meanings? It’s not unlike . . . well, what happens to people who experience God in nature when the natural world is severely diminished. It seems that in both instances God’s terrain gets smaller. God becomes harder to find.

Same with the brain, right? As humans lose the capacity, the capability to live in deep thought, it becomes harder for humans to know or even search for concepts of God, God himself or itself, whatever. You talk about the “plasticity” of the brain and how the way the brain is used actually changes its capabilities over time. Is there an upside to the transition now taking place — apart from the immediacy of communication, our ability to talk this way with each other? I mean, will humans 100 years from now be discussing such things? Or do we abdicate such deliberations to algorithms and artificial intelligence? 


Wolf: Ah, you have so many thoughts at once! What you just said is a great example of the gift of a brain that is like a multiple-ring circus where all these associated thoughts get activated at once for our cerebral examination. But in the more linear act of my responding to you, I will reflect one of the limitations of our brain: that is, we do best not when we multitask, but when we focus our attention on one task or issue at a time.

Herein lies the rub at the heart of your James Joyce-like associations. The students you describe, and indeed most of our youth and children, are the recipients of multiple distractions that continuously claim their limited attention. The concerns you raise are very real about whether our students (or we ourselves) have time to reflect upon some of humankind’s deepest questions about our search for G-d, our relationship to nature in a culture of manmade distraction and digital engagement and addiction, and our relations to each other in an increasingly virtual world.

In my last book I describe the increasing data on young people’s decreasing ability to infer and comprehend what they read when on digital screens, as opposed to reading the same content in print. It is not a simplistic, binary question of whether we read and think more deeply on screens or books and print. We can absorb information in multiple mediums if we learn how to focus our attention with intention. The more important question is where meaning lies for us in what we do and think, and whether we even ask that question.

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I remember in John Dunne’s book Vision Quest a passage from Heidegger in which he said, “The meaning pervading technology hides itself.” Before any of us knew about algorithms capable of writing algorithms that created more algorithms, Father Dunne wrote that the real question within our use of technologies concerns what it does to our relation to each other, to nature, to G-d. It is the spiritual refinement of Sherry Turkle’s question about what each new technological innovation disrupts or diminishes.

Kerry, you are looking at students today on Notre Dame’s campus and remembering your trip back to Farley Hall, immersed in questions that go missing when our brain is being bathed in constant stimulation. I think back to my walks back to Saint Mary’s after long, discursive talks with Eric Ward ’69, ’76Ph.D., Bill Mitchell ’71 and Jeff Powell ’69 about what Joe Evans or Seymour Gross or Fathers Ernie Bartell and David Burrell had said that day in a lecture or a sermon. I am sure such searching discussions happen today, but I worry that these quests for meaning diminish as I write upon a screen that is my almost-perfect aide memoire and the thief of my focused attention.

It is the refusal, however, to abdicate one’s search for meaning for ourselves and our society, and for what most of us call G-d, that will help us resolve some of the contradictions in everything we both have discussed. Centuries ago the philosopher Nicholas of Cusa said that when two parallel truths coexist (such as, technology is both the greatest aid to human evolution and the most insidious of threats to humanity), we must take a stance of learned ignorance and examine each “truth” with sufficient depth till we reconcile them.

Our own Pope Francis wrote a dissertation on “reconciling thinking,” based on a tradition that included the work of Cusa, and that directs us to the profound importance of education as the foundation for the reconciliation of opposing truths. In an essay in The New York Times, “A Crisis Reveals What Is in Our Hearts,” Pope Francis used a line from a poem by Friedrich Hölderlin, “Patmos,” to state: “‘Where the danger is, also grows the saving power.’ That’s the genius in the human story. There’s always a way to escape destruction. Where humankind has to act is precisely there, in the threat itself; that’s where the door opens.”


Temple: So just this week in my writing class I was talking about the importance of committing to a story, immersing yourself in it as a necessary part of the writing process. Really getting into it, letting it live inside of you, occupying your thought processes. The idea, I said, is to then try — not to just get the story onto pages but to take what’s inside of you using the 26 letters of the alphabet — and get it into the head and heart and soul of the reader. And then have it light up that reader’s brain or heart or imagination, to take them places in their own head. That’s a daunting task. But I love that process, and I think that transaction is necessary to the understanding required for us to survive. At least it makes life a lot richer.

It then occurred to me — and I told the students this — that I was behind deadline with a story because I hadn’t been able to get to it. Not sufficiently to begin writing. Phone calls, emails, family stuff, TV, all the demands and tasks and distractions that life presents had gotten in the way. It’s a constant barrage of things, all wanting immediate attention. And all the rabbit holes the internet lures us with. It’s just so hard these days to clear out that space to really think, think something through, to sit with your thoughts and beliefs, your eyes on the sky or birds, or read deeply, and let things come and then marinate inside of you.

But you know what? The students do still have an appetite for good writing and the depth and thoughtfulness and meaning that good writing and reading can provide. I love it in class when we’re talking about a piece of writing — especially a student-written piece that is honest and open and searching for some truth about life. It’s just so cool to see how it affects the other students — and the writer, too. I mean, that’s the deal, right? Resonant chords, felt deep inside.


Wolf: Kerry, I am so glad you said this about writing and how writing itself propels the thoughts of the author and the reader. Once a young minister in a tiny congregation in Kentucky wrote me about my last book. He told me his favorite quote from that book gave him more purpose than ever to read and to write his own book, in which he would tell his fellow pastors to read widely and deeply. I hadn’t even remembered writing that line, but it gives me such hope that a reader gave it back to me, its author. I found it on page 103. “I read both to find fresh reason to love this world and also to leave this world behind — to enter a space where I can glimpse what lies beyond my imagination, outside my knowledge and my experience of life, and sometimes, like the poet Federico García Lorca, where I can ‘go very far, to give me back my ancient soul of a child.’”

 Let me add . . . and in so doing, to expand an ever truer, more beautiful understanding of the universe and to lead a life based on this vision.