How social and digital media has opened up some brain pathways while closing down other brain pathways

Press/Media: Press / Media


In 'Differences in the Discipline of Literary Study' Distinguished Professor J. Hillis Miller cites Dr Suzie Gibson's observation that online communications (including social media platforms and smart phones) have dramamtically changed the landscapes of reading and writing, and moreover, the study of literature itself.

The content and nature of their email exchange led to the observation that the rise of online communications has opened up some brain pathways while closing others down as well as circumventing other ways of thinking and being, that can be inclusive of diminshing skills in reading, writing and comprehension.


Period19 May 2017

Media contributions


Media contributions

  • TitleDifferences in the Discipline of Literary Study
    Degree of recognitionInternational
    Media name/outletSymploke
    Media typeOther
    CountryUnited States
    Description1) Disastrous political developments around the world, especially, nearest to home for me, the awful catastrophe of Donald Trump’s election as President of the United States. Trump, our “twitter in chief,” is a pathological liar who has kept none of his promises to “make America great again.” He is dismantling the Environmental Protection Agency, thereby contributing greatly to global climate change.

    He is weakening women’s rights and immigrant rights. He wants to lower taxes on the rich and on corporations. He wants to privatize infrastructure by way of toll-roads and the like. His Secretary of Education wants to replace public school systems in the United States with vouchers and for-profit schools. His bellicose rhetoric (“fire and fury like the world has never seen”) has brought us to the brink of nuclear war with North Korea. What good is reading Middlemarch in dealing with this awful situation?

    2) Irreversible humanly caused global climate change with its concomitant threat of extinction for many species, including the human species. For a quite comprehensive account of what we may expect and why, see “The Uninhabitable Earth” (Wallace-Wells 2017).
    3) The extremely rapid transition from print culture to digital culture worldwide. The best historical parallel in the West would be the shift from manuscript culture to print culture during the Renaissance.

    That earlier shift, however, took a couple of hundred years, whereas worldwide digitalization has taken only a few decades. It is also in many ways a more radical cultural change. Reading a manuscript and reading the same words in a printed book are certainly different. The medium used in a given case always matters.

    I am not sure, however, that reading Middllemarch in a printed book and reading it in Kindle on a computer screen are not even more radically different, for example in the new ability to search for key words or to insert comments and alterations. The print world and the cyber-world are to a larger degree incommensurate than the manuscript world and the print world, different as the latter two are.

    I am old enough to remember the time, not all that long ago, when we had pencils, pens, typewriters, and tape recorders for registering spoken language and only radio to listen to and films to watch in movie theatres. No computers. No Internet. No iPhones. No email. No Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn. No Netflix. Not yet even TV in my childhood.

    4) The fourth decisive factor is the decline digitalisation is bringing about in the role print literature and literary theory play these days in United States culture and in other national cultures, in a different way in each nation. This decline is evident, for example, in the drastic decline of enrolment in college and university literature courses in the United States and elsewhere. It is also evident in the decline in students’ ability to read and write.

    A professional friend of mine who teaches reading and writing in an Australian university, Suzie Gibson, reports in an email to me that it can be a constant struggle to get students to read and I have to say that I wonder if the digital age has fired up certain brain pathways while closing others down.”

    Some neuroscientists do indeed claim to have found empirical evidence of such changes in brain pathways. My correspondent goes on to say that in her judgment “‘fake news’ goes hand in hand with ‘post literacy.’”

    Dr. Gibson assures me that she knows from her own experience of teaching across many Australian universities over a period of 20-years that there is a decline in reading ability.

    This is true as well in other countries around the world, as new digital medias replace print media at different rhythms and rates. In any case, many people these days around the world play video games or the new board games, or watch films on Netflix, or watch Fox News, or use Twitter or Facebook, rather than reading print literature. Huffpost reported on April 18, 2017, that “People Wasted 500 Million Hours Watching Adam Sandler Movies on Netflix” (Wanshel 2017). Five hundred million hours!
    Producer/AuthorJ. Hillis Miller
    PersonsSuzie Gibson, Suzie Gibson


TitleDifferences in the Discipline of Literary Study
LocationOnline email exchanges, SPRING HILL, Australia
Period19 May 2017 → 19 Dec 2019


  • Literary Study, Reading and Writing Resilience, Dr Suzie Gibson