Scratching the Surface

Your Brain on the Internet

by Lara Killian

23 July 2009

“Blah, Blah, Blah” (partial) by Mel Bochner 

Adapt ... or Die?

Adapt ... or Die?

Changes in our information seeking behavior may be the canary in the proverbial coal mine as it becomes increasingly difficult to evaluate information sources when faced with a virtual avalanche of hyperlinked text.

Maryanne Wolf,  Director of the Center for Reading and Language Research at Tufts University, writes in her excellent 2007 book Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain, that reading is one of the “powerful mirrors of the human brain’s astonishing ability to rearrange itself to learn a new intellectual function”. Wolf tells the wonderful tale of humans developing the ability to translate written symbols into sounds and then into a system of storing information for posterity.

As Wolf points out, the ability to read is not a natural or inherited skill in the human brain—it must be taught to each individual. She also goes into some detail regarding her research about the latest iteration of the human brain—that which deals increasingly with digital texts. Human brains have adapted before; they may be continuing to evolve where reading is concerned.

cover art

Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain

Maryanne Wolf

(HarperCollins)

Today’s textual formats are basically unrecognizable when compared to the ancient clay tablets where Wolf starts her investigation, but she examines major shifts in literacy and the tools that make it possible to disseminate information widely, including electronic formats. Of early efforts to record information in a systematic textual format, Wolf writes, “With each of the new writing systems, with their different and increasingly sophisticated demands, the brain’s circuitry rearranged itself, causing our repertoire of intellectual capacities to grow and change in great, wonderful leaps of thought”.

Using the origins of reading as her starting point, Wolf makes a strong argument for the changing nature of the brain as the input available takes on different forms. She looks at the immense physiological changes to the human brain during the evolution of language capability before reading became a skill we take for granted. As interaction with digital text becomes more common, Wolf argues that the brain is continuing to evolve and that this has huge implications for the future of our society:

Knowing what reading demands of our brain and knowing how it contributes to our capacity to think, to feel, to infer, and to understand other human beings is especially important today as we make the transition from a reading brain to an increasingly digital one.

As we gain the opportunity to find any information we desire with a few clicks of a mouse, what exactly are we losing, if anything? Patience, perhaps? The deep revelation that sometimes comes with contemplation, as Carr suggests? Can our brains adapt, as Wolf asserts, to handling those ever-increasing amounts of digital and hyperlinked text?

When I began this investigation I thought that losing the ability to focus long enough to read a novel was the biggest thing at stake. The more I consider the issue, the more I realize that there are larger trends forming—changes in our information seeking behavior may be the canary in the proverbial coal mine as it becomes increasingly difficult to evaluate information sources when faced with a virtual avalanche of hyperlinked text.

Are our brains losing critical cognitive ability in the Internet age, or are they in fact simply adapting? In the future, society’s most influential thinkers will likely require new strategies for processing the deluge of digital text at their disposal. One of those strategies will likely be hiring staff members practiced in dealing with digital text. New support positions for those skilled in evaluating digital data and maintaining focus in the face of seemingly infinite information sources are likely to emerge. Information managers and savvy researchers will be in high demand.

I have nothing but respect for those intent on developing the reading skills needed to mentally process digital text and use it effectively. Some are developing these abilities without conscious thought, as a natural part of constant reading online. The nostalgic part of me simply hopes that reading full length novels and lengthy, in-depth nonfiction tracts does not become a thing – or a thought—of the past.

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