Posts Tagged ‘decline in empathy’

Is Deep Reading Endangered by Technology?

October 21, 2018

This post is based on “READER COME HOME: The Reading Brain in the Digital World” by Maryanne Wolf. MIT scholar Sherry Turkle described a study by Sara Konrath and her research group at Stanford University that showed a 40% decline in empathy in young people over the last two decades. The most precipitous decline occurred in the last ten years. Turkle attributes the loss of empathy largely to their inability to navigate the online world without losing track of their real-time, face-to-face relationships. Turkle thinks that our technologies place us at a remove, which changes not only who we are as individuals but also who we are with one another. Wolf writes, “The act of taking on the perspective and feelings of others is one of the most profound, insufficiently heralded contributions of the deep-reading process.”

Barack Obama described novelist Marilynne Robinson as a “specialist in empathy.” Obama visited Robinson during his presidency. During their wide-ranging discussion, Robinson lamented what she saw as a political drift among many people in the United States toward seeing those different from themselves as the “sinister other.” She characterized this as “dangerous a development as there could be in terms of whether we continue to be a democracy.” Whether writing about humanism’s decline or fear’s capacity to diminish the very values its proponents purport to defend, Ms Robinson conceptualized the power of books to help us understand the perspective of others as an antidote to the fears and prejudices many people harbor, often unknowingly. Within this context Obama told Robinson that the most important things he had learned about being a citizen came from novels. “It has to do with empathy. It has to do with being comfortable with the notion that the world is complicated and full of grays but there’s still truth there to be found, and that you have to strive for that and work for that. And that it’s possible to connect with someone else even thought they’re very different from you.”

It is most insightful that the polarization that is being experienced, is due in large part to missing empathy, which to some degree, perhaps large is due to digital screen technology. Although technology has been blamed for much, part of the problem here is not just the display mode of information, but also the type of content of the information. Quality fiction builds empathy. Even technical reading can build empathy provided the content can be related to the feelings and thinking of others. And some social research does summarize the feelings and thinking of others.

Wolf writes, “There are many things that would be lost if we slowly lose the cognitive patience to immerse ourselves in the worlds created by books and the lives and feelings of the “friends” who inhabit them. And although it is a wonderful thing that movies and film can do some of this, too, there is a difference in the quality of immersion that is made possible by entering the articulated thoughts of others. What will happen to young readers who never meet and begin to understand the thought and feelings of someone totally different? What will happen to older readers who begin to lose touch with that feeling of empathy for people outside their ken or kin? It is a formula for unwitting ignorance, fear and misunderstanding, that can lead to the belligerent forms of intolerance that are the opposite of America’s original goals for its citizens of many cultures.”

Deep reading involves more than empathy. Wolf writes, “The consistent strengthening of the connections among our analogical, inferential, empathic, and background knowledge processes generalize well beyond reading. When we learn to connect these processes over and over in our reading, it becomes easier to apply them to our own lives, teasing apart our motives and intentions and understanding with ever perspicacity and, perhaps, wisdom, why others think and feel the way they do. Not only is it the basis for the compassionate side of empathy, but it also contributes to strategic thinking.

Just as Obama noted, however, these strengthened processes do not come without work and practice, nor do they remain static if unused. From start to finish, the basic neurological principle—“Use it or lost it”— is true for each deep-reading process. More important still, this principle holds for the whole plastic reading-brain circuit. Only if we continuously work to develop and use our complex analogical and inferential skills will the neural networks underlying them sustain our capacity to be thoughtful, critical analysts of knowledge, rather than passive consumers of information.”

Mark Edmunson asks in his book “Why Read,” “What exactly is critical thinking?” He explains that it includes the power to examine and potentially debunk personal beliefs and convictions. Then he asks, “What good is this power of critical thought if you do not yourself believe something and are not open to having this belief modified? What’s called critical thought generally takes place from no set position at all.”

Edmonson articulates two connected, insufficiently discussed threats to critical thinking. The first threat comes when any powerful framework for understanding our world (such as a political or religious view) becomes so impenetrable to change and so rigidly adhered to that it obfuscates any divergent type of thought, even when the latter is evidence-based or morally based.

The second effect that Edmunson observes is the total absence of any developed personal belief system in many of our young people, who either do not know enough about past systems of thought (for example, Freud, Darwin, or Chomsky) or who are too impatient to examine and learn from them. As a result, their ability to learn the kind of critical thinking necessary for deeper understanding can become stunted, Intellectual rudderlessness and adherence to a way of thought that allows no question are threats to critical thinking in us all.

It is also important to be aware that Deep Reading has a generative process. Here is a quote from Jonah Lehrer—“An insight is a fleeting glimpse of the brain’s huge store of unknown knowledge. The cortex is sharing one of its secrets.”

Wolf writes, “Insight is the culmination of the multiple modes of exploration we have brought to bear on what we have read thus far: the information harvested from the text; the connections to our best thoughts and feelings; the critical conclusions gained; and then the uncharted leap into a cognitive space where we may upon occasion glimpse whole new thoughts. The formation of the reading-brain circuit is a unique epigenetic achievement in the intellectual history of our species. Within this circuit, deep reading significantly changes what we perceive, what we feel, and what we know and in so doing alters, informs, and elaborates the circuit itself.”

Neuroscience informs us that creativity is everywhere based on brain imaging and recording. There is no neat map of what occurs when we have our most creative bursts of thinking. Instead, it appears that we activate multiple regions of the brain, particularly the prefrontal cortex and the anterior cingulate gyrus.