The Benefits of Deep Reading: Neuroplasticity in ActionPosted: January 21, 2009
by Maureen Hall
My posting is a response Bob Waxler’s recent post on “Deep Reading.” Bloggers discussed many aspects of deep reading and attempted to define what it means.
In Proust and the Squid (2007), Maryanne Wolf makes clear that a key source of worry in the 21st century includes that people may not engage in deep reading or reading at all for that matter. Wolf articulates a connection between Socrates’ worry about his world moving from an oral to a written culture to our current worry that people won’t read as we move into the digital age. Wolf explains that this correlation is “relevant today as we and our children negotiate our own transition from a written culture to one that is increasingly driven by visual images and massive streams of digital information” (19).
Wolf talks about how the act of reading actually changes the make-up of the brain. What then will happen to us if we don’t read? Though there is no particular answer to this question, we can look at the inverse side of the argument; that is, what happens to us when we do read?
Wolf claims that “By identifying with characters, young readers expand the boundaries of their lives” (140). Others, like Daniel Goleman also talk about the “neuroplasticity” of the brain in terms of educating for emotional intelligence. He explains the meaning of neuroplasticity as “the fact that the brain can change at any point and continues to be reshaped throughout life by repeated experiences” (153). However, Goleman claims that in order for emotional intelligence to develop, “learning needs to be experiential to be effective.” (153)
Wolf’s and Goleman’s work, each in dialogue with the other, help me to define what deep reading is and what it can be. In the best kind of Changing Lives Through Literature discussions, I believe that we can encourage deep reading in action. Though I can read something by myself and understand it, I cannot understand it in the deepest ways without dialogue and interaction with others. The best CLTL discussions create a community of meaning-makers.
David Whyte reflects on the key points growing out of twentieth century psychological investigations and how important community is to the formation of identity in individuals. One overarching finding, he reports, is that “the identity of individual human beings is predicated, ironically enough, on belonging” (11). And I believe that CLTL discussions can help people grow their identities.
Deep reading and discussion of a common text allows for opportunities where people can get to know themselves better and get better acquainted with the world in which they live. In turn, this participation holds the opportunity for increasing emotional intelligence which helps us to better live in this world.
Whyte echoes Goleman’s emphasis on the experiential:
What brings a human being alive is a sense of participation in the conversation of life with others, with the great things of the world, with the trees or landscapes or skies or cityscapes, and that this conversation is the way by which a human being comes to understand the particularity of their own gifts in the world (11).
Similarly, CLTL discussions afford us with opportunities to activate deep reading, make changes in our brains, understand more about who we are, and participate more thoughtfully in the world.
Maureen Hall (PhD University of Virginia) is an Assistant Professor in the Education Department at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth. As a member of the Carnegie Academy for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, her work focuses on Cognitive-Affective Learning. Her current research projects focus on the cognitive and affective dimensions of service learning with pre-service teachers, the professional development of teachers, and the integration of contemplative practices to deepen learning.