It was only around 5,000 years ago that the human brain made a major breakthrough: Building on neural circuits that could already interpret scratches on clay tablets and the symbols in cave paintings, it developed the capacity to link the sounds of spoken language to the abstract visual marks we call words. In other words, humans learned to read.
The act of reading activates a symphony of brain activity, involving not only the visual and auditory systems but neural circuits that build meaning, evoke emotion, and encode memory. When you read, your brain does much more than simply comprehend the words in front of you: It enables you to empathize with people you’ve never met, to engage with ideas that challenge and inspire you, to imagine other worlds.
That is, if you can remember what you’re reading.
As you read this, right now, you may find that although your eyes are skimming from left to right, you’re barely taking in the meaning of the words. You may get to the end of this very paragraph and realize that you can’t really recall any of the ones that came before.
If that’s the case, you’re at least in good company. A 2012 review paper by Ziming Liu, a professor of information science at San Jose State University who studies reading behavior, noted that when we read digital text, as opposed to words on paper, we tend to default to skimming over more careful reading. And as screens occupy an increasingly prominent presence in our lives, this kind of distracted skimming has become the new norm of reading, according to the cognitive neuroscientist Maryanne Wolf, author of Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain, and Reader, Come Home: The Reading Brain in a Digital World.
Based on Wolf’s own research on the neuroscience of reading, she thinks this hurried form of reading is sucking much of the benefit — and pleasure — out of one of humanity’s greatest evolutionary leaps forward. It also explains why so many people struggle to remember what they’ve read even a few moments afterward, she says.