Are we skimming through life on digital brains?

Apr. 12, 2014 @ 03:57 PM

Within a few minutes of sitting down to start this column, I’d read a half-dozen emails, skimmed a news alert from CNN, and visited two websites searching for a radio segment I heard a couple of days ago – and checking something else at each one.

I was looking for the radio segment, which had been on National Public Radio’s “Here and Now” program, because from it I learned my ricocheting attention span may be a new normal.

I don’t know if I am reassured or alarmed.

But at least I know this behavior has a name. I am afflicted with digital brain.

As the “Here and Now” transcript puts it, “With digital devices, we are constantly consuming information, from short tweets and text messages to online articles and blog posts. We jump around, skimming and scanning.”

These are not just quirks. Our brains may, neuroscientists are finding, be adopting new processes. The change may be making it more difficult for us to read closely and absorb lengthy or complex material closely.

Maryanne Wolf, a cognitive neuroscientist at Tufts University who was the guest on “Here and Now,” has referred to an “eyebite culture” – a further descent from the soundbite culture television spawned.

“I’m afraid that what we’re becoming is so inured to seizing the most salient word that we are literally eliminating the music, the thoughts in between those words, some of the most precious aspects of written language,” Wolf told host Robin Young.

Wolf’s book, “Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain,” has established her as an authority on these changes. The book has spurred increasing discussion of the trend. 

Writing in The Washington Post, Michael S. Rosenwald noted that scientists warn that we’re “developing digital brains with new circuits for skimming through the torrent of information online. This alternative way of reading is competing with traditional deep reading circuitry developed over millennia.”

Rosenwald reported that “time spent online – on desktop and mobile devices – was expected to top five hours per day in 2013 for U.S. adults… That’s up from three hours in 2010.”

Assuming we’re awake 16 hours a day (although given the tsunami of information pelting us, who has time to sleep eight hours?), we’ve gone from spending less than 20 percent of our waking hours online to spending about 31 percent. The proportion of our day spent online is half again greater than just three years ago.

Word lovers alarmed by this trend, Rosenwald wrote, are “battling not just cursory sentence galloping but the constant social network and email temptations that lurk on our gadgets. Researchers are working to get a clearer sense of the differences between online and print reading – comprehension, for starters, seems better with paper – and are grappling with what these differences could mean not only for enjoying the latest Pat Conroy novel, but also for understanding difficult material at work and school.”

I recognize too much of myself in this. Although I’m not nearly as immersed online as many, my line of work and my penchant for being distracted by instantly available bright, shiny tangents and trivia has had an impact. I find it much harder than even two or three years ago to settle down for a couple of hours with a serious book – as much as I still love the thought of that.

Wolf worries that we “don’t want to become either Twitter brains or the people who only read the first half-page of a Google entry.” It sounds as if we might be skimming down that path.

Bob Ashley is editor of The Herald-Sun. You can reach him at 919-419-6678 or bashley@heraldsun.com.