- Learning in the digital age
- How does the brain handle ICTs?
How digital technology is changing our reading brain
“I miss my pre-internet brain” With this phrase written on a pink background, artist Douglas Coupland shows how much the internet has changed how we seek, understand and remember information.
In all humanity’s history, we have never had so much information available to read before. To deal with this tsunami of knowledge, our brain seems to be changing, evolving to create a new way of reading that is adapted to the digital environment.
While deep reading on a screen may require more cognitive effort, numerous studies have shown that the typical reader is far less attentive when reading information online. Only 28% of words on a web page are deciphered, while reading speed (nearly 500 words a minute) is paradoxically faster than the average, when it should be slower, leading to the conclusion that the typical reader is not actually reading the web-page, but skimming it quickly. These results have been confirmed at the French laboratory for digital information technology usages (LUTIN), with studies that track readers’ eye movements using special glasses. After watching their subjects read web pages, the researchers realised that the classic left to right reading pattern was disrupted by the positioning of graphic elements like adverts and videos. Add to that a complex browsing context with numerous open tabs, incoming mail alerts, tweets and Facebook comments. In short, reading an article online is apparently about as easy as reading a novel in a football stadium during a match: the surrounding noise makes it difficult to focus our attention. And yet attention is exactly what drives cognition: enabling us to select the information we need to act, think, understand and learn.
Too much information
Our lack of attention is not the only factor to take into account. The profusion of information and its ease of access also impact the situation. Before the widespread arrival of the web, information was found in a library or newspaper. It took time to find it, and to assimilate it. Now, an information search is a speedy, almost immediate act, cancelling out any anticipation that might once have been aroused. It seems that our online consumption fails to encourage us to look deeper into the subjects we are reading about, leading us instead to skim over them, preventing our brain from making links between ideas which would open us up to new areas of reflection. This is the core of Nicholas Carr’s thesis in his seminal article Is Google Making Us Stoopid? and follow-up book The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, where he worries that intensive use of search engines and reading on the web might be modifying his brain and preventing him from concentrating.
The sorting brain
Happily, his outlook is far from being unanimously accepted. This dreaded lack of attention may be the counterpart of an even more radical change to our brain. Some scientists, looking at how the ever increasing volumes of information and ever easier access to it affect us, view the associated acceleration in reading patterns as a new way of sorting and selecting which in fact is useful to us. MRI scans have shown that in contrast to reading on paper, the internet generates far stronger stimuli in the parts of our brain that manage decision making and complex reasoning. So in the end this perceived problem of concentration may be linked to improved ability in jumping from one piece of content to the next, in the search for the correct information. But our new status as “information hunters”, as Nicholas Carr likes to call us, remains to be confirmed. After all, the study subject is still very much in its infancy, and comparisons between thirty years of digital reading and several centuries of “classic” reading need to be approached with caution and objectivity.
Consult the original sources of this article
by Thierry Baccino
Il y a plus de 5 000 ans l’homme inventait l’écriture et, au cours des siècles, le support d’écriture (tablettes, volumen, codex ou livre imprimé) se révéla toujours très stable, dans le sens où ce support ne modifiait pas la forme des textes au cours de la lecture. Cette stabilité facilitait notamment la mise en place de stratégies de lecture ou d’inspection visuelle. Or, depuis une trentaine d’années, le texte a tendance à proliférer sur des supports extrêmement variés : e-books, tablettes, smartphones, ordinateurs… (...)
URL BBF 2011 - t.56,n°5