person reading book on brown and beige textile




One of the ideas I talk about a lot when I give keynotes is that technology changes quickly but humans don’t. Most of the ways that people’s eyes, ears, bodies, and brains work has come about from eons of evolution. And these aren’t likely to change quickly.

I did say most. Reading is an exception. And that’s because reading is not hardwired. Every brain has to learn how to read.

Maryanne Wolf wrote a book called Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain. In it she explains that people’s brains weren’t made to read. Unlike the capacity to walk or talk, reading is not built in. It’s something people learn to do, and, interestingly, there isn’t just one way that the brain reads.

Neuroplasticity And Reading

People’s brains change throughout their lives. The term that’s used is neuroplasticity. The brain reorganizes itself. It forms new neural connections, and sometimes changes where in the brain certain functions occur. This is in response to the environment and what people do each day. Learning to read causes the brain to change, too.

In some ways, people’s brains change in predictable ways when they learn to read, regardless of the language. Kimihiro Nakamura (2012) mapped brain activity with fMRI scans for people who learned to read in French versus Chinese. He found that there are two circuits, one for shape recognition by the eye and another for gesture recognition system by the hand, which are activated and show the same pattern of activity with both languages.

There are some differences in the pattern of activity, though, based on language. For example, there’s more activity in the gestural areas of the brain for people who read Chinese, compared to French. No matter what the language people read in, however, their brains change when they learn to read.

As Wolf points out, parts of the brain that are hardwired for other tasks—for example, shape recognition, speech, and gesturing— create new circuits and neuron connections when people learn to read.

Skimming And Scanning Vs. Reading

The type of reading people do when they sit down—focused and not distracted—to read a book (whether on an e-reader or on paper, whether a novel or nonfiction) is quite different from the type of reading they do when they’re browsing information online. They use different parts of the brain.

People think differently when they’re doing focused reading. Good readers do what Wolf calls “deep reading.” They think while they read. They connect what they’re reading to their own experiences. They come up with new ideas. They go beyond what the author is writing to interpret and analyze. They’re having an internal experience.

Skimming and scanning are a different experience—not worse, just different. People use more visual attention when they skim and scan. They internalize much less. It’s an external experience. These differences between deep reading and skimming and scanning show up on brain image scans.

Designing For Skimming And Scanning Is Best Practice, Right?

If you’re designing products that involve people reading text, you’re probably aware that many people don’t read everything they see on a screen. And you’re probably aware that you need to break text up into smaller chunks, and use headings. These guidelines have been accepted as best practice for online text for several years. However, I’m going to suggest that you think about this in a more radical way than you might be used to.

It’s Not Reading

Based on this new research on deep reading, skimming, and scanning, I’m recommending that you stop thinking of what people do when they go to a website or read an online article as reading. (The exception is when people are reading a book with an online reading device.)

I’m suggesting that reading be defined as follows:

When people sit or stand in one position with little movement and read text on a digital or paper page, when they are not distracted by anything else on the page or anything in their environment, when the only interaction with the device or paper product is to go to the next page or, now and then, go to a previous page, and when they maintain this activity for at least 5 minutes without doing anything else—that is reading.

Anything else involving the processing of words on a screen or a page is skimming and scanning.

Designing For Skimming And Scanning

Most people who design websites, apps, and products aren’t designing for reading as I’ve described it above. My premise is that you’re designing for an activity that’s not reading. Skimming and scanning looks different in brain scans from reading. Skimming and scanning are external experiences, based on visual attention.
If you’re designing for skimming and scanning, assume that people are not thinking deeply about what’s written, they’re probably reading very little of it, they’re skipping over large parts, and they’re not interpreting and analyzing the information.

Reading Is Changing = Brains Are Changing

One more thought: people skim and scan when that’s appropriate and they deep read when that’s appropriate. How wonderful it is that the human brain is plastic enough to learn both, and can change from one to the other when needed.

This switch from reading to skimming and scanning is no problem for people who grew up learning how to deep read, and then, later, learned how to skim and scan. Is it possible that new generations will grow up without learning deep reading at an early age? Or that they may learn skimming and scanning first, and then deep reading? Or maybe they won’t ever learn deep reading?

Wolf hypothesizes that since this brain reorganizing alters the way people think, these changes could have large and unanticipated consequences for how people interact with information. Will humans get to the point where they don’t analyze information they’re “reading” because they skimming and scanning, not reading? Will people get to the point where they don’t have an internal experience when taking in words?


  • People are probably skimming and scanning your online text, so make sure you follow skimming and scanning guidelines: break information into small bits and use headings.
  • Don’t assume that people have “read” online text.
  • Don’t assume that people have comprehended or remembered online text.
  • Minimize the amount of text you use online.


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