Repercussions of the Digital Brain

Internet usage doesn’t exactly enhance our ability to concentrate, if anything it causes commitment issues. Most web surfers click on links, reads a few sentences, scan for interesting words or pictures, then grow restless and move on. Rarely do they commit more than a few seconds to a page.

To cognitive neuroscientists, this phenomenon is both fascinating and alarming. They warn that humans may be developing digital brains with new circuits for skimming through the vast amount of information online. This alternative way of reading is competing with traditional deep reading circuitry developed over several millennia.

“I worry that the superficial way we read during the day is affecting us when we have to read with more in-depth processing,” said Maryanne Wolf, a Tufts University cognitive neuroscientist and the author of “Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain.”

Nonstop cable TV news gave us the culture of sound bites. Wolf believes the internet is fostering a new eye byte culture. With screen time expected to increase to five hours a day by 2013 for U.S. adults, according to eMarketer, it is certainly time to investigate the repercussions of the digital brain.

Adapting to read

Surprisingly humans possess no genes for reading like the we have for language and vision. The human brain was not specifically designed to read. With the emergence of Egyptian hieroglyphics, the Phoenician alphabet, Chinese paper and, finally, the Gutenberg press, the human brain adapted to reading.

Prior to the internet the brain had adapted to read in a linear format with one line leading to the next and one page to the next. But with the internet so much information is vying for attention now. With hyperlinked text, videos and flash advertisements, interactivity is everywhere. Our brains form shortcuts to deal with all of the information. Our brains scan the page, search for key words, scroll up and down. This is nonlinear reading, which some researchers believe is beginning to effect other reading formats.

“We’re spending so much time touching, pushing, linking, scroll­ing and jumping through text that when we sit down with a novel, your daily habits of jumping, clicking, linking is just ingrained in you,” said Andrew Dillon, a University of Texas professor who studies reading. “We’re in this new era of information behavior, and we’re beginning to see the consequences of that.”

It is becoming more common for people to spend many hours a day using the internet in their profession and personal time. The more time spent scanning and searching for data, the more difficult it becomes to read long sentences with multiple, winding clauses full of background information. Online sentences tend to be shorter and more concise. Complicated information and background data is usually included via links.

This phenomenon has not gone unnoticed by academics. Several English department chairs from around the country have e-mailed Wolf reporting that their students are having trouble reading the classics.

“They cannot read ‘Middlemarch.’ They cannot read William James or Henry James,” Wolf said. “I can’t tell you how many people have written to me about this phenomenon. The students no longer will or are perhaps incapable of dealing with the convoluted syntax and construction of George Eliot and Henry James.”

While she encourages the use of technology there is no denying the possible reproductions of technology. Consider the growth of Twitter an it’s influence to abbreviated thoughts under the mandatory 140-character rule.

“How much syntax is lost, and what is syntax but the reflection of our convoluted thoughts?” she said. “My worry is we will lose the ability to express or read this convoluted prose. Will we become Twitter brains?”

Bi-literate brains?

Wolf’s next book will examine what the digital world is doing to the brain, including looking at brain-scan data as people read both online and in print. The comprehension results in screen vs. print reading is of particular interest to her.

Many others are studying the question as well. A 2012 Israeli study of engineering students — who grew up in the world of screens — looked at their comprehension while reading the same text on screen and in print when under time pressure to complete the task.

The students believed they did better on screen. They were wrong. Their comprehension and learning was better on paper.

Scientists encourage more research to further study the differences between print and screen reading. There are advantages to both ways of reading. If educators could effectively develop a way to combine both styles, we could create a bi-lateral brain. The differences should be properly incorporated into educational settings, particularly with school-aged children.

“We can’t turn back,” Wolf said. “We should be simultaneously reading to children from books, giving them print, helping them learn this slower mode, and at the same time steadily increasing their immersion into the technological, digital age. It’s both. We have to ask the question: What do we want to preserve?”

Wolf is training her own brain to be bi-literate. Surprised by her own lost ability to sit down and easily read a book. She developed a different strategy. Before she reads a novel she gives herself distance, both in time and space, from her screens.

“I put everything aside. I said to myself, ‘I have to do this,’ ” she said. “It was really hard the second night. It was really hard the third night. It took me two weeks, but by the end of the second week I had pretty much recovered myself so I could enjoy and finish the book.”

“I wanted to enjoy this form of reading again,” Wolf said. “When I found myself, it was like I recovered. I found my ability again to slow down, savor and think.”

 

Meet Ms Maryanne Wolf. Buy her book,“Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain.”

 

[Source: Washington Post]  Read the source article,  Washington Post

 

 

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