Sunday, May 23, 2010

This is your brain on Internet

Here's how I normally read things on the internet: several tabs, usually between four and eight, worth of Firefox are open, two of which--Gmail and Twitter--provide automatic updates when I receive an email, chat, or tweet. Music or a podcast is usually playing, controlled both via my MacBook's F7-F9 buttons and a series of virtual buttons located on the bottom of my Firefox window via an add-on called FoxyTunes. (If my iTunes is not active, this most likely means I'm sitting in front of a TV or watching Hulu or Netflix or whatever on my additional monitor.) I do most of my reading within Google Reader, where I can see the other dozens of unread posts and feeds waiting for me. In short, I'm rarely focused on reading one thing at any given time. And, of course, the content of the reading itself is different--hyperlinks mean that nothing is self-contained.

I'm not sure this a good thing.

Wired has just published an excerpt from Nicolas Carr's The Shallows, in which the author examines the effect of exactly this type of multitasking on the human brain. After detailing the requisite MRI scanning differences between regular internet users and infrequent internet users--suggesting that technology usage changes, in real and measurable ways, the very wiring of human brains--Carr says this:

Research was painting a fuller, very different picture of the cognitive effects of hypertext. Navigating linked documents, it turned out, entails a lot of mental calisthenics--evaluating hyperlinks, deciding whether to click, adjusting to different formats--that are extraneous to the process of reading. Because it disrupts concentration, such activity weakens comprehension.


The Internet is an interruption system. It seizes our attention only to scramble it. There's the problem of hypertext and the many different kinds of media coming at us simultaneously. There's also the fact that numerous studies--including one that tracked eye movement, one that surveyed people, and even one that examined the habits displayed by users of two academic databases--show that we start to read faster and less thoroughly as soon as we go online. 

And most interesting of all:

When we adapt to a new cultural phenomenon, including the use of a new medium, we end up with a different brain, says Michael Merzenich, a pioneer of the field of neuroplasticity. That means that our online habits continue to reverberate in the workings of our brain cells even when we're not at a computer. We're exercising the neural circuits devoted to skimming and multitasking while ignoring those used for reading and thinking deeply.

We're not looking for quality content so much as constant content. (From this perspective, it sorta makes sense why people don't want to pay for content on the internet.) I'm not sure how helpful it is to ask whether new realities of this type are good or bad, but shouldn't we try to pay attention to things? In addition to keeping these reading and comprehension muscles in shape for situations in which we really need them, I'd like to think, as someone whose writing is probably never read through any medium other than the internet, that people are doing more than just skimming.

Now, I'm not planning on changing the majority of my internet reading habits because a large portion of the reading I do is meant to be skimming. I skim/read probably more than one-hundred posts and articles per day for my blogging gigs, where I'm mostly just searching and sifting for good stuff to write about. But I am going to try to make an effort to pay attention to the internet writers who have earned my attention through their consistent excellence: the Joe Posnanskis, the Josh Wilkers, the Rob Walkers, the Ariels. Both because they deserve it and because I want to be present in the things that I do. Eat while you're eating, and all that.

(This is maybe the main benefit of printed books at this stage of history--the reading experience itself is different because the medium is more focused. Does that mean that only content of a high quality--content that deserves to be read, not skimmed--should be printed? Possibly. It's definitely something for traditional media companies to consider.)

But yeah, let's try to pay attention to what we're reading. Some of it, at least, is worthy of our attention.

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