The Fordham Experiment & Reading from Books vs. Online


Deep in Reading

“The human brain was never meant to read”.

Katherine is deep in thought, and in reading, in this Vampire Diaries scene. It’s from the episode “The House Guest.”

Will the speed of online reading deplete our analytic thought?

Marshall McLuhan’s hypothesis about the medium influencing our reading circuits forms an apt prelude to today’s debates

Susan Greenfield’s recent comments about how modern technology and social media are changing the way our brains work have caused quite a stir in the academic community: these changes, she claims, are as important to understand as climate change. One interesting way of assessing the value of her statements is to look at the nature of the “reading brain”.

To begin with, the human brain was never meant to read. Not text, not papyrus, not computer screens, not tablets. There are no genes or areas in the brain devoted uniquely to reading. Rather, our ability to read represents our brain’s protean capacity to learn something outside our repertoire by creating new circuits that connect existing circuits in a different way. Indeed, every time we learn a new skill – whether knitting or playing the cello or using Facebook – that is what we are doing.

New capacities, however, change us, as the evolutionarily new reading circuit illustrates. After we become literate, we literally “think differently” about language: images of brain activation between literate and nonliterate humans bear this out. The brain’s plasticity allows an intrinsic variety of possible circuits – there is no set genetic programme. For example, in the case of reading, this means there will be different reading brains depending on various environmental factors: the Chinese reading brain, for example, uses far more visual areas because there are more characters to learn.

In 1968, Marshall McLuhan started conducting an experiment at Fordham University, in which he made students watch the same film on a cinema screen and a television, and analysed their different reactions: the characteristics of the medium, his hypothesis went, will always influence what parts of the reading circuit are employed and to what extent. At the time, many laughed off McLuhan’s theory, but it stands out like an apt prelude to the debate we are having today. The characteristics of a medium like the internet invite the reader to move from one stimulus to the next in rapid fashion. The characteristics of a medium like the book invite more focused attention.

Like Professor Greenfield, my research group and I are most concerned with how the acquisition of new capacities changes human development. In the case of reading, we know that the “expert reading brain” as we know it includes a beautifully complex circuit that integrates simpler decoding skills with what I call “deep reading” processes such as critical analysis, analogical thought, inference and insight.

The integration of the simpler and the deeper reading processes is not automatic and requires years of learning by the novice reader, as well as extra milliseconds for any expert to read a more sophisticated text. The reality is that today’s expert reading circuit was formed under very different conditions and with different mediums than those of our childrens’.

The questions that our society must ask revolve around whether the time-consuming demands of the deep-reading processes will be lost in a culture whose principal mediums advantage speed, multitasking, and processing the next and the next piece of information. Will an immersion in digitally-dominated forms of reading change the capacity of the young readers to form and to develop their deep reading processes? No one at this moment possesses the evidence to answer these questions, but our children’s development and our species’ intellectual evolution require that we confront them.

On McLuhan’s Fordham Experiement see  and also .

4 Responses to “The Fordham Experiment & Reading from Books vs. Online”

  1. The tendency to warn against discoveries, scientific theories and technological advances has a long history.

    According to Plato, (428 – 347 BCE), The King of Egypt warned Theuth, who first discovered writing,

    “O most expert Theuth, one man can give birth to the elements of an art, but only another can judge how they can benefit or harm those who will use them. And now, since you are the father of writing, your affection for it has made you describe its effects as the opposite of what they really are. In fact, it will introduce forgetfulness into the soul of those who learn it: they will not practice using their memory because they will put their trust in writing, which is external and depends on signs that belong to others, instead of trying to remember from the inside, completely on their own. You have not discovered a potion for remembering, but for reminding; you provide your students with the appearance of wisdom, not with its reality. Your invention will enable them to hear many things without being properly taught, and they will imagine that they have come to know much while for the most part they will know nothing. And they will be difficult to get along with, since they will merely appear to be wise instead of really being so.”

    The author of “An open letter to Baroness Susan Greenfield says, “You may not realise just how much illogical garbage and ill-formed speculation parents of children with these conditions [autism] are exposed to.” Equally as serious is “how much illogical garbage and ill-formed speculation” parents of healthy children are exposed to. I add these to the list: the dangers of wireless internet in schools and fluoridated water.


  2. For the record: the ‘Fordham experiment’ was Marshall McLuhan’s son Eric McLuhan and Harley Parker.


    • The decision to do the “Fordham Experiment” might very well have been Eric’s idea, as his father was engaged at Fordham to teach a number of classes and to give some public lectures. And under the terms of his Albert Schweitzer Chair in Humanities, he was able to bring Eric and Harley Parker along as associates to help him. That’s what Wikipedia says, not that Wikipedia is always right, as I think Andrew will agree. See below.
      But the whole point of doing this Fordham Experiment was to demonstrate MM’s idea that “the medium is the message,” that different mediums produce different effects on people and create different environments. The idea was clearly MM’s and I think the Fordham Experiment was probably undertaken by Eric to test and demonstrate his father’s idea.


  1. 1 Must-Reads: Learning About Learning | 360Connext

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