Digital Society Forum Digital Society Forum
Dossier 16/12/2013

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.


Comments

To react to this article, I log in I sign up

Abdelmalek TEBBOUB
Abdelmalek TEBBOUB 04/09/2018 14:07:01

Je pense que pour bien analyser l'impact du ménurique sur la lecture des individus, nous devons prendre en considération le degré de familiarité avec les outils, un utilisateurs expérimenté ne perd pas le meme temps et le meme pourcentage dans la navigation et les onglets qu'un utilisateurs débutant, à un certain niveau de maitrise technique, on se concentre sur le contenu, cela demande des années de pratique, tous comme la relation d'une élève avec un stylo dans les première années d'apprentissage, partant de mon expérience personnelle, après des années de recherche et de lecture sur internet, j'utilise rare le papier et je me souviens au debut que j'avais bcp de difficultés à retenir l'essentiel d'un article, maintenant je peux lire attentivement et rapidement plusieurs articles, selectionner l'essentiel, analyser les uns et les autres sans trop de difficulté.

Sandrine Fromentin
Sandrine Fromentin 28/09/2016 17:34:43

Pour compléter et argumenter mon avis de la dernière fois. Je dirais que le cerveau évolue forcément car les habitudes des gens évoluent aussi. Le fonctionnement de notre cerveau est ainsi fait :
https://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cerveau
http://www.spcf.fr/documentation/corps_humain_tete_cou_cerveau.html

Ce qui permet de dire aussi que le cerveau à des capacités d'évolutions. Et que sa principale sources de modification à long terme est les données entrantes, donc la lecture et donc comment sont créé les pages des sites. Ainsi que la lecture des différents contenus que l'ont peut trouver !

Sandrine Fromentin
Sandrine Fromentin 31/08/2016 16:13:27

Avant nous avions la lecture de livre. Maintenant nous avons aussi une lecture sélective, c'est à mon sens la plus grande différence!

Consult the original sources of this article


Sign up

Join the Digital Society Forum to discuss and react on articles and be informed of upcoming events

DSF