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What Is Deep Reading, and Why Does It Matter?

Maryanne Wolf
Updated on March 15, 2017
  • Deep Reading
  • Literacy

Consider a simple insight with large implications: Human beings were never born to read. Reading (and writing, for that matter) isn't like seeing or smelling or walking or even talking. The reading of books isn't necessary for our survival, yet every culture in the world does it.

We may not have been born reading, but reading has shaped us. This cultural invention necessitated totally new connections among structures in the human brain underlying language, perception, cognition, and, in time, our emotions. Yet today, reading is an endangered practice, as a great body of evidence suggests our addiction to technology is shaping our brains once more and reducing our capacity for empathy, focus, and patience.

Deep reading, or slow reading with reflection, allows one to become completely immersed in the text. Unlike skimming or scrolling social media, a deep reading habit is a form of discovery—it's shown to increase both comprehension and enjoyment. The practice of deep reading is vital to maintaining an intelligent, empathic, and self-reflective society.

The benefits of reading slow are manifold, but the threats to the practice are real. To become deep readers, we must understand the way our digital devices are impacting our lives today and develop some new, intentional reading practices.

Deep Reading Literally Hardwires Your Brain

Reading represents one of the most important epigenetic breakthroughs in the history of the species; our very history was made possible by it. The fact that our brains can even learn to read—a new function that has neither a prewired (genetic) program for unfolding in its environment nor prescribed dedicated structures like language and vision—teaches us a lot about the way brain regions work together.

We now know, for example, that the brain’s plasticity allows it to recycle and repurpose neuronal groups to help us learn to read. Quite literally, neuronal working groups originally dedicated to face and object recognition are repurposed in the visual cortex to identify letters and letter patterns. These working groups, in turn, become connected to neuronal working groups in language, cognition, and affective regions. Whole new pathways emerge from these connections, through which our brain is altered, our species is altered, and our ability to use past knowledge to forge new thought is propelled.

In short: When the reading circuit emerged in the brain, literate humans were given an evolving platform for the development of new thought, which has changed us for the better.

Reading Shapes the Way You See the World and Others

Maryanne Wolf is a scholar, teacher, and literacy advocate whose work on deep reading explores the range of linguistic, cognitive, and affective processes that underlie not only the emergence of creative thought when we read, but also the development and strengthening of capacities like empathy and critical analysis that we can apply to the rest of our lives.

She notes that the deep reading experience activates the use of background knowledge, imagery, critical analysis, perspective-taking, empathy, insight, and novel thought. According to Ms. Wolf, "the acme of deep reading represents that 'fertile miracle of communication' that happens when readers use all their cognitive and linguistic capacities to 'go beyond the wisdom of the author' to generate their own best thoughts—for themselves and sometimes for us all."

The intellectual and emotional development that results from a deep reading habit is good for society. After all, "deep reading processes force us to hone analogical reasoning, experience the feelings of others, sharpen our discernment, and build a base of knowledge that allows us to think and feel in ever deeper, more expansive, and more generative ways," as Ms. Wolf notes. "...every time we are transported outside the circumference of our own lives to enter the thoughts and feelings of others, we are changed. For the good."

Are Deep Readers Disappearing in Our Digital World?

We would be the worst of fools if we ever lost this extraordinary capacity to go stretch our minds beyond the limits of past thoughts and personal experiences. And, yet, that is a danger we face today, largely unaware, as we move through the present, great transition from a literate to digital culture. The brain's reading circuit that's developed through the advent of literacy is not a given; it is built by use, or it atrophies from disuse.

In other words, our evolving reading brain is a mirror that reflects what is being demanded of it by the medium. The medium is the message to the cortex. If the attributes or affordances of digital technology are characterized by speed and efficiency, multitasking and attention switching, and a growing reliance on external platforms of knowledge, our reading brain will begin, imperceptibly, to take on those characteristics and make less use of others.

The Implications of a Society Without the Capacity for a Deep Reading Habit

Of course, there are consequences to whatever we do. Deep reading forces readers and teachers to spend considerable attention, time, and effort retraining the brain in its capacity for unhurried progress compared to the ease and efficiency of superficial reading, or information-driven reading. After all, these processes will be sidelined without a cognitive flinch by us if our reading circuits allocate less time to them. It is one thing for adult reading habits to shift away from deep reading processes over time; it is another if our children never develop the interpersonal skills and creativity that comes from deeper reading. Thankfully, there are interventions available for children struggling with deep reading, like Voyager Sopris Learning's  RAVE-O® program, to support childhood development in this vital area.

There is another significant (and frightening) risk to society presented by the rise of the digital screen. In a culture that bombards us with a glut of information from multiple sources, the omnipresent temptation for many of us is to quit this vigorous exercise and instead turn toward comfortable, easily digested, less dense, and less intellectually demanding information. We reduce our ability to be challenged, to comprehend difficult topics, and to access enlightening experiences when we retreat to a life of enjoyment rather than a life of contemplation.

Ms. Wolf sums it up this way: "If we as a society are not vigilant, cognition will alter with little realization by most; the quality of our attention will change along with different forms of memory; and comprehension for complexity will change. In time, there will be downstream effects on the quality of our background knowledge and our understanding of others...The ultimate effects of such threats to how we process information and knowledge would weaken the basis of a thoughtful, empathic citizenry—the foundation of our democracy. Figuratively and physiologically, we will not be the wiser."

Tips for Relearning Deep Reading

There are choices before us if we are to preserve the deep reading brain as we know it. Deep reading is quickly becoming counter-cultural, and intentional focus must be put on the practice to develop deep literacy, understand abstract ideas, and increase our cognitive capacities.

Deep reading is a distinctive experience—you don't become a deeper reader by simply picking up a book every couple of days. To develop a deep reading habit, try:

  • Reading often. Your reading circuit doesn't get developed overnight. Like any muscle, it needs regular exercise to become fully formed.
  • Putting your phone away (and silencing it). Deeper reading should be an immersive experience; constant phone or email notifications will pull you from your formative, hypnotic trance and back to real life. Reduce the temptation to check your phone (even if it's silent) by putting it in another room while reading. This may be uncomfortable at first, but this practice will become easier in time.
  • Avoiding highlighting or taking notes. If absolutely necessary, scribble notes in the margins or grab your favorite highlighter, but try not to. Favor re-reading (paragraphs, pages, chapters, even entire books) over note taking, since this practice will deepen your comprehension of the subject matter.
  • Reading for at least 30 consecutive minutes at a time. If it takes 23 minutes to regain attention at work after an interruption, it must take at least that long to re-enter the deep reading mindset. Set yourself up for success by giving yourself adequate time to practice.

Read for Wisdom, Not for Information

In Four Quartets, T.S. Eliot asked, “Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? Where is the knowledge lost in information?” Here Eliot makes the important distinction that information is not wisdom. In today's information-obsessed culture, we're at risk of confusing the two—a mistake which has significant consequences for the quality of our lives.

The study of the deep-reading brain is our newest canary in the mind’s mine. We're slowly learning that how we read influences what we read, and what we read influences how we think, feel, and relate to one another.

So, keep reading—even digital reading on electronic devices like e-readers has benefits. After all, every time a child learns about helping another from that sweet elephant Horton, every time we pass into the consciousness of a slave mother faced with losing her “Beloved," and every time we experience the bravery of a few small hobbits trying to get rid of a gold ring, our neurons are firing. And we're growing.