Friday Reads: Deep Reading Gives Us Empathy

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Today I return to a topic that has interested me for a while: what is the role of deep, immersive reading in the digital age? Why is deep reading important when everything is available online and readers can skim ideas quickly?

According to a recent article in Time by Annie Murphy Paul (“Reading Literature Makes Us Smarter and Nicer”), deep reading is more important than we think.

The article cites several studies that show people who read deeply and tend to read literature are more empathetic:

Raymond Mar, a psychologist at York University in Canada, and Keith Oatley, a professor emeritus of cognitive psychology at the University of Toronto, reported in studies published in 2006 and 2009 that individuals who often read fiction appear to be better able to understand other people, empathize with them and view the world from their perspective. This link persisted even after the researchers factored in the possibility that more empathetic individuals might choose to read more novels. A 2010 study by Mar found a similar result in young children: the more stories they had read to them, the keener their “theory of mind,” or mental model of other people’s intentions. (http://ideas.time.com/2013/06/03/why-we-should-read-literature/#ixzz2VWwJZQ3n)

The article also cites studies that say deep reading provides “vigorous exercise for the brain,” allowing the brain to make connections in ways it wouldn’t do on its own. A deep readers’ brain can more easily “see” how others react emotionally. Reading literature helps us better understand our human needs.

What does this mean for serious readers who welcome digital disruption and new forms of publishing? What about the unique experimentation with form happening now outside of publishing: apps, wikis, interactive books, etc.?

What we can’t do yet is mimic the simple, immersive, and lo-fi experience of reading a good book. Digital technology, in essence, is distracting and doesn’t lend itself to deep reading — at least in its current form.

With one exception: the e-ink eReader. While most eReaders connect to the internet, the experience is so similar to reading a book that it allows for deep reading. Some might argue that having a dictionary built-in or accessing Wikipedia from the device is distracting, but in some cases it is rewarding. For me, the ability to add notes and highlights on the device enhances the reading experience without distracting from it.

Still, the technology on tablets and smartphones is too distracting. It leads to what the article calls “carnal reading”: reading only to understand something or to skim the surface of its meaning. Unfortunately, too many readers assume this type of reading is deep reading. Deep reading is an experience, not a chance to record ideas in our brain for later use.

As we move to new reading delivery systems (for lack of a better term), readers should be conscious of the types of reading. Let’s not lose deep reading as we move forward with technology. At the same time, let’s make sure we use technology smartly and not allow it to dictate how we read.

Kevin Eagan (@KevEagan) is a freelance editor and writer living in Central Florida. He edits book manuscripts and articles for local and national publications. Critical Margins is his place to share his interests. You can also check out his professional website, KevinThomasEagan.com.