Manager at Spindox, a highly innovative, recently listed company, Paolo Costa is also known for having launched the viral phenomenon of ‘Twitterature‘.
As a digital and learning expert, he has published a series of studies for Egea that focus on the theme of reading and its future.
In particular #letteraturasenzafine. Il futuro del testo nell’era social (#unending literature. The future of text in the social age) and, most recently, Diluvio digitale. Storia e destini della lettura (Digital Flood. The history and fate of reading).
In the digital age, the future of the written word intersects with algorithms, augmented reading and podcasts, transforming along with the way we learn. How so? Does the end of paper spell the end of reading? Or does both the one (the end of paper) and the other (the end of reading) prophecies that no longer have any appeal?
The reading brain
Paolo Costa observes that, in the last twenty years, “a new way of studying cognitive phenomena, i.e. those concerning knowledge and learning, particularly human learning, has been increasingly successful”. Cognitive neuroscience has brought new knowledge about the brain, knowledge reinforced by so-called functional neuroimaging: a combination of techniques that render brain activity observable.
This resulted in new awareness. One in particular deals with the ‘reading brain’. This was recalled a decade ago by Maryanne Wolf, a neuroscientist who has been studying the phenomenon of reading and its ‘dysfunctions’ for some time at the Center for Reading and Language Research at Tuft University, which she directs. The invention of reading, in fact, is relatively recent in human evolution. It has led to a partial reorganisation of our way of thinking, “changing the intellectual evolution of our species”.
The human brain has therefore been, quite literally, a reading brain for about six thousand years. The history of our brain, however, is bound to change.
Indeed, it is already changing, in front of our eyes and, above all, under the phalanges and fingertips of our fingers that incessantly tap on a plastic keyboard. Endangering reading means compromising in the long term not only learning, but the very plasticity of the ‘reading brain‘.
Few activities, in fact, “reflect better than reading the astounding ability of the human brain to reorganise itself to learn a new intellectual function”. That is why it is important, especially now that signs of change are emerging, to observe reading and the ‘reading brain’.
Reading: between cognition and emotion
Neuroimaging techniques have yielded some fascinating insights into reading. The first consideration, Costa explains, is that “the regions of our brain involved in reading are numerous, which seems to confirm that reading is a particularly sophisticated activity from a neural point of view“. Secondly, he continues, “we can observe that the brain events activated by reading are arranged in a temporal sequence, albeit a very short one”.
In other words, we are talking about a process, i.e., reading, “in which different things happen in our brain at different times. In other words, reading is a complex function that is divided into a series of sub-functions, each of which is controlled by one or more brain regions”.
But these brain activities, Costa notes, are at the same time linked to the domains of cognition and emotion.
The challenge of focus
An example, valid both for reading in the strict sense (a book) and for reading on screen (when watching a TV series). “When we observe characters moving within a fictional universe, we develop empathy, i.e. we put ourselves in the characters’ shoes as if they were real”.
This very discovery alone allows “us to formulate two conjectures: it appears, at first, to provide a neuroscientific basis for the idea that images act in us with greater power than words”. After all, “when we read we cannot help but ‘see’ what we read”.
Moreover, Costa suggests, we cannot doubt “the possibility that the same mechanism takes place when we immerse ourselves in the narrative universe of a book. Reading a literary text would ultimately activate our emotional skills no less than our cognitive ones”.
It is precisely the awareness that emotion and cognition are closely linked in the evolutionary mechanism of reading that makes this practice a real added value to be promoted and ‘protected’.
In particular, Costa notes in the wake of Wolf, reading, precisely because it activates a series of highly complex neurocognitive processes, needs an antecedent: focus.
Can information overload and the difficulty of engaging in ‘deep reading’ activities put the reading brain at risk? Costa wonders: “is it possible to prevent brain function atrophy? Is it plausible to imagine a brain that trains itself to manage the new, post-typographical, digitalised information environment, but at the same time retains the ability to perform ‘old’ tasks?”
Overcoming information overload
Costa explains: “If the brain circuitry of reading is malleable, i.e. influenced by what we read, how we read and how we are educated to read, then education becomes one of the key factors in modifying the behaviour of the reading brain”. The aim is to “create readers capable of flexibly switching from one code to another (from analogue to digital, and vice versa), taking advantage of the best of both worlds”.
Moreover, as early as 2015, one of the most extensive studies on the use of digital technologies in schools, carried out by the OECD on the basis of the PISA 201225 results, highlighted a significant fact: “it is not possible for students to excel in online reading without also being able to understand printed texts”.
Not surprisingly, the countries with the best results in the PISA assessment on online reading were Singapore, Korea, Hong Kong-China, Japan, Canada and Shanghai-China; the same countries that also showed the best results in the paper-based reading test. The future of reading, one might conclude, is already here.