Today we may marvel at the extraordinary technological advances of the digital age and how the high-tech revolution has dramatically altered our culture and our brain’s neural pathways. (Gary Small & Gigi Vorgan, iBrain, 2008)
What does the ubiquitous availability of digital text mean for the human brain as it processes ever-increasing amounts of information? When Nicholas Carr published his essay, ”Is Google Making Us Stupid?” in The Atlantic magazine last summer, I was deeply intrigued, as well as empathetic to Carr’s plight.
Carr postulated that reading online is a more shallow experience, in terms of the reader’s comprehension, than traditional reading in print. The more we become accustomed to clicking on links, following snippets of text, and quickly deciphering the presumed meaning behind ambiguous messages merely a few words in length (I’m looking at you, Twitter), the less information many of us retain.
Carr’s metaphors of skimming across text and the overall message in the article pointed to a suspicion that we may be unable to put this process in reverse: our brains and neural pathways may actually be changing with this new information processing behavior. We have no way of telling at this point whether the change will be permanent. We also have no way of measuring the impact this potential change may have on human productivity, creativity, or quality of life.
Some of us have grown up surrounded by all things digital, while others have joined the Internet age later in life, after already forming personal reading habits and mental patterns of information retention. But whether an individual chooses to immerse himself in digital text or merely dip in occasionally, digital information is nearly ubiquitous and we are only starting to understand the repercussions of our interactions with it.
Those who have grown up with the Internet are often referred to as ‘digital natives’, while those who came to the party later are sometimes called ‘digital immigrants’. Born in 1980, I feel my reading habits lay on the cusp between these two groups of information users, and perhaps that is why I am so interested in the concept of the changing brain. Are we being rewired, as Carr suggests?
Grown Up Digital: How the Net Generation is Changing the World
(McGraw-Hill; US: Oct 2008)
Don Tapscott writes in his recent book Grown Up Digital:
There are many reasons to believe that what we are seeing is the first case of a generation that is growing up with brains that are wired differently from those of the previous generation. Evidence is mounting that Net Geners process information and behave differently because they have indeed developed brains that are functionally different from those of their parents.
Tapscott started writing on this subject a decade ago, in his previously published Growing Up Digital: The Rise of the Net Generation (1998). In the late ‘90s it was still difficult to see the more subtle effect the constant availability of the Internet might have on the way people process information, but Tapscott presented some intriguing thoughts about the possible effect on our brains of interacting with digital text. At the very least, he recognized that young people were handling digital text differently from those who did not grow up with a mouse in hand. A decade later, more research, and a whole lot of commentary, is available on the topic.
Preliminary investigation suggests that the physical makeup of the brain of a digital native functions and develops in a different manner from that of a digital immigrant. One way to examine whether our brains are changing in the way they process information (and thus potentially physically, as certain neural pathways are reinforced and others neglected) is to look at information seeking behavior in Internet users.
iBrain: Surviving the Technological Alteration of the Modern Mind Author: Gary Small, Gigi Vorgan
(HarperCollins; US: Oct 2008)
Early in 2008 a report was released based on a University College London (UCL) study, Information Behaviour of the Researcher of the Future, which examined how young people and school children look for information in comparison with older generations. The report was commissioned by the British Library and Joint Information Systems Committee (JISC) as part of the British government’s effort to understand how information literacy is changing alongside technological developments.
The UCL report concluded that the majority of online information seekers look at only a percentage of an e-book or electronic journal article’s content before moving on, usually never to return. The study also points out that young people (born after 1993) “tend to move rapidly from page to page, spending little time reading or digesting information and they have difficulty making relevant judgments about the pages they retrieve.”
Spoiled for choice when it comes to finding content online, digital natives often have difficulty evaluating the information they find, according to the UCL report. Meanwhile, Carr argued in the Atlantic article that members of all generations are coming to rely on Google to sift through mountains of digital information because it is so hard to process as an individual. Frequently, Carr proposes, we start reading one piece of text only to get distracted and move on before we finish what we started.
Skipping from textual crumb to snippet to fragment, many of us, even digital immigrants, are falling out of the habit of devoting our full attention to long sections of text, let alone full-length books. And the generation the UCL study focuses on may have never needed or wanted to train their mental faculties on the task of processing lengthy swaths of text.
It’s possible that the more we reinforce the new pathways formed in our brains by spending ever-increasing amounts of time online, albeit while decreasing our actual engagement with text, the more other areas of the brain become weakened (Small, iBrain, 2008). It’s worth reflecting on how the human brain has evolved to develop the ability to read at all, before pondering the direction our brains may be headed, as exposure to digital text continues.
Adapt ... or Die?
Image (partial) from The Future Sound of London: Teaching from the Electronic Brain
Adapt ... or Die?
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.
Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain
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.