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Our brain during analog and digital reading: the advantages of bi-literacy

Written by Barbara Monteleone // Strategic Planner – Ottosunove

The development of language and literacy are achievements that took millennia to be developed and to form brain areas that allow us to go beyond the primitive and survival skills genetically programmed in our brain since the beginning of times.

Reading is an extremely complex ability, fundamental for the growth of children: it is a matter of recognizing phonemes and letters, knowing how to make connections, inferences and deductions, widening the vocabulary, developing syntax.

Our brain and reading

The evolutionary process that allowed us to learn to read has changed the structure of our brain and the nature of human thought. Precisely because it is recent in our history as a species, this acquisition is still weak and needs to be trained so that it is not lost and affirmed, structured and strengthened according to how much, how and what we read.

When we read, our brain performs its cognitive decoding from what we already know, but it also deduces things that go beyond what is actually said, not only through very rapid connections with what is already known and the comparison with past experiences, but also from the attentional and mnemonic enrichment that comes from sensory and environmental stimuli: the “emotional coloring” connected to the place and the situation in which the reading takes place, the sensory stimuli that derive from the contact with the paper, from its scent, the rustle of the pages and other sensory stimuli that may derive from the use of a pencil, or marker that we use to emphasize.

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“Digital” reading changes the way the brain perceives stimuli

The more focused we are, the more we really enter into the story: in this mode of “deep reading” our empathic abilities develop and apply, we identify with the characters, so to speak we live history as our own, also developing critical thinking.

Deep reading, however, requires time and the full availability of our attentive systems. Does the advent of technological reading systems, which are becoming increasingly popular, change the way the brain perceives and decodes stimuli?

Science confirms that, and we have to take that into account. The ability to read on computers, e-readers, tablets or smartphones gives us many more opportunities to read and a huge amount of information.

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Digital and the ability to decode information

Although this is undoubtedly a positive thing, it should be noted that the amount of information and stimuli has now become overwhelming for our brain and its ability to process and retain it in memory.

Our brain apparatus has a finite amount of attention and energy and tends to avoid wasting it. So in front of too many stimuli it ends up omitting some, perceive them superficially, decode them incorrectly and not store them in memory.

In addition, the use of smart devices, with increasingly rich and articulated content and multimedia means has subverted the linear reading from left to right and lost the structure «on page» in favor of an increasingly intricate multidimensional navigation using a synthetic and very visual syncopated language.

Our mind on digital? It’s like a “grasshopper”

Today, in the web and digital media, it is no longer practically possible to read a text sequentially: this creates a heavy cognitive load in the brain and a strong generation gap in terms of perception and understanding related to the instrument and the mode of reading used.

Research indicates that in digital reading the mind behaves like a grasshopper, jumping from one device to another, entering and exiting texts and contents quickly, but remembering less detail and with less understanding and storage than reading on paper.

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The bi-literate brain

So what? Of course, it is not a question of denying the value of new technological tools to the advantage of analogue reading alone, but of making conscious use of them and combining the advantages of both modes.

The development of the so-called bi-alphabetized brain, able to read in different ways, should therefore be encouraged: using speed when necessary, but also reserving time and energy for “deep reading”.