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Why You Need to Develop a Biliterate Brain — and How to Do It

Reading online is changing us

computer screen with lots of menus and buttons

100 days

Would you be changed if you spent almost seven hours a day concentrating on one activity?

If you spent more than 27% of your entire YEAR doing one thing on a daily basis, would it change how you think?

You bet. And you DO.

The average American spends 6 hours and 42 minutes every day of the year reading a digital screen, and half of that is on a tiny-screened mobile device, allowing us to see only a few lines at a time.

No wonder our brains are mutating, forming new pathways and different routes for processing information.

Adaptations over time

The human brain has a genetic code for vision and language, but not for reading. From cave paintings and hieroglyphics to printed books and digital screens, the act of processing information through reading is something the human mind has adapted to.

Did you know that Plato worried that the act of writing would decrease the memory skills that people had relied on in the past?

He was probably right. The ability to record thoughts and events allowed us to depend less on memory and oral tradition. We began to function differently with the advent of written language.

With the dawn of the internet age, we began to behave differently, reading in a different manner than we did fifty years ago.

Today, cognitive neuroscientists are studying the changes in the human brain. They are both fascinated and worried about what’s happening to our ability to process information as we do more and more reading on a digital screen.

Humans, …they warn, seem to be developing digital brains with new circuits for skimming through the torrent of information online. This alternative way of reading is competing with traditional deep reading circuitry developed over several millennia.

Two types of reading exist in today’s digital world: You can look for information FAST or you can emotionally connect with complex text, SLOWLY. If you can easily do both, you have a biliterate brain.

Studies show that fewer and fewer people — even scholars — can easily switch between the two styles of reading of a biliterate brain. We are so trained to scroll and scan that it’s getting harder and harder to shift to a slow, intense reading mode.

3 distinct advantages of digital reading: cost, space, and time

  • The cost of digital books is less than printed books, allowing schools and libraries to purchase more new inventory at a fraction of the cost. Readers can access online materials through free sites, giving them resources that would not have been available if they would have had to pay for print books.

  • Digital resources don’t require physical space. No one has to build additional wings, construct shelves, or figure out where to house collections. Online materials are not subject to mold, mildew, fire, or theft like print books are.

  • Online materials are accessible at any time of the day or night, and deliverable within seconds. They are portable and without weight.

Reading on the screen is different from reading on the page

When you go online to read something, do you allot an hour or two to indulge in the information with the intent of lingering over every word?


Studies have shown that reading on the screen is a different experience than doing it with print.

  • Reading digitally is usually done for speed. Technology enables us to scroll up and down, to scan for keywords, to look at headings, bullet points, and bold text. Most online readers actually read only 30% of the text.

  • We go online to find information quickly. Using “find” functions and quick links to get through the text quickly, knowing that the faster we scan, the more we’ll accomplish.

  • Because we often see fewer words on the page, it becomes necessary to scroll faster to find information. We get faster and faster, a habit that is hard to break when reading a print source.

  • The vast array of visuals — videos, GIFs, emojis — provide an altogether different aesthetic from reading a book. In fact, many students now cite reading a book as “boring.”

  • The very visuals that make digital reading an interactive, engaging experience also make it distracting. Students report that they’re 85% more likely to multi-task and read less carefully online than they would in a printed source.

  • While some people read electronically, studies have shown that it is harder to concentrate when reading a digital book than a print book. In fact, 92% of students said that they concentrate better with print books.

  • We have gone from a linear pattern of reading to a jumping and looping pattern. No longer do we read straight across the page, but we jump from one block to another, from one visual to another. Reading now is more like a series of circles and recrossed lines traveling in all directions.

electrical loops and lines

The concerns about how digital reading is changing us

Reading to find information. Scanning to locate words. Getting information FAST eliminates the kind of “slow reading” that is necessary for deep reflection and comprehension.

Neuroscientist, Maryanne Wolf, director of the Center for Reading and Language at Tufts University, is the author of Reader, Come Home, that examines the effect that digital media has had on our brains.

“How much syntax is lost, and what is syntax but the reflection of our convoluted thoughts?” she said. “My worry is we will lose the ability to express or read this convoluted prose. Will we become Twitter brains?

Too much online reading can result in the inability to concentrate, greater difficulty in comprehending longer sentences and paragraphs, and a rush through the text without comprehending the meaning.

We live in a modern world where we daily navigate the vast network of digital sources. But we also have to be able to feel, understand, and enjoy the depth of literature.

We NEED biliterate brains capable of both FAST and SLOW styles, looping and linear patterns to survive.

Digitally-developed brains are capable of flipping through visuals, assimilating ideas, jumping from thought to thought, and finding information FAST. Print-oriented brains allow us to SLOW DOWN, savor the language, and consider the implications of the words on our lives.

How to develop a biliterate brain:

  • Do both kinds of reading every day: We’re already spending 6 hours and 42 minutes every day online. If most of those hours are spent online responding to emails and Facebook posts, spend some of that time engaging in “slow reading.” It doesn’t matter whether you’re engaging in “slow reading” on an electronic reader or a print book. It’s not the medium that matters; it’s the mode. Fast versus slow. Looping versus linear. Both skills in your brain need daily exercise.

  • Understand your purpose: If you’re looking for facts and information when you sit down at the computer, use your digital brain skills. Scan, browse, and find. Jump around on the page. Be a speed demon and be proud of it.

  • Practice “slow reading.” A novel. A biography. A how-to book. A long article on business, art, or finance. Utilize print material to contemplate and enjoy. Highlight, notate, and comment in the margins. Look for beautiful sentences or interesting sentiments. Take your time. Grow the endurance of a “slow” reading brain.

  • Consciously switch between the two forms of reading so your bilateral brain gets better at shifting gears. If you allow time for slow reading over coffee, switch to digital material after lunch. The trick is to think about what you’re reading and why you’re reading it. Your brain will build shortcuts between the two skills, allowing you to easily flip the switch from one to the other.

two halves of a single cup

Buy Reader, Come Home from Amazon.

Buy Reader, Come Home from

Learn more about the art of reading in The Need to Read.

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