Once I was a scuba diver in a sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski – Nicholas Carr
It’s the general consensus that the Internet is a positive force in the world, and why would anyone think otherwise? The Internet has brought us new modes of communication, worldwide media accessibility, online purchasing and online banking, it has facilitated our search for sources of information, has provided infinite hours of entertainment, and has even led to new ways of experiencing personal financial growth. But behind all the life-changing benefits of the Internet age, there seems to be a growing concern: how is the Internet affecting? More specifically, how is the Internet affecting the way we read and absorb information?
The Traditional Reading Process and its Benefits
The reading process consists the complex cognitive process of decoding symbols in order to construct or derive meaning. This means that reading is comprised of a group of mental processes that includes attention, memory, producing and understanding language, learning, reasoning, and so on. Furthermore, reading is a complex interaction between the text and the reader which can be shaped by numerous factors, like the reader’s prior knowledge, personal and social experiences and attitudes, cultural awareness, etc.
The mental processes that goes into reading can also be thought of as benefits, and although there are countless benefits to reading, there are a few of these that stand out and that seem to be more affected by the Internet age. For example, no matter how complicated things get in our lives, whether it be work, relationships, or general fatigue, reading has the immense power of reducing stress by allowing the reader to fully lose himself in the story. A 2009 article on The Telegraph explains how recent studies have shown that reading is the best way to relax, and even reading 10 minutes a day is enough to reduce stress by 66%. This is because the human mind has to concentrate while reading and the distraction of being taken into a literary world eases the tensions in muscles and the heart. Consequentially, do to the required concentration needed in order to follow the story and fully enjoy it, readers are exercising their mind, not only to concentrate, but to concentrate for longer periods of time, leading to the increased ability to focus.
As readers learn to concentrate and focus on the story, the background, the different characters, social implications, and the series of events that lead to the climax and the resolution, readers are improving their capacity to recall information that was previously read. In this regard, “the British biologist J.Z. Young argued that the structure of the brain might in fact be in a constant state of flux, adapting to whatever task it’s called on to perform” (The Shallows, Pg. 21). This means that every time we use our brain, new cells are being generated, and every time our brain generates a new memory, not only is our brain generating new synapses (brain pathways and connections), but also strengthening old ones, making it easier to recall past events and information.
The Internet and Online Reading
As we have seen, reading requires a tremendous amount of concentration and focus, and the challenge with doing anything online (specifically reading) are the many distractions that the Internet has to offer. Therefore, just like we might be distracted by Facebook, Twitter or YouTube while researching a topic for school or writing a paper, as people read online, researchers have found, that they too find it extremely difficult to concentrate and understand the information that is being absorbed. “The current explosion of digital technology is not only changing the way we live and communicate but is rapidly and profoundly altering our brains” (The Shallows, Pg. 120). Therefore, as the brain recycles and reuses used neurons and synapses for new purposes, we’re gaining new skills and perspective, while at the same time, losing old ones.
In his book, “The Shallows”, Nicholas Carr asserts that using the Internet and reading online can lead to a reduction in deep thinking and attention span, making it difficult to read without mental interruptions. In 2008, UCLA psychiatry professor Gary Small and two colleagues carried out the first experiment that actually showed people’s brain and how they changed in response to Internet use. The interesting thing about this experiment is that the study also led Small and his team to note the mental differences between reading Web pages and reading books. “The researches found that when people search the Net they exhibit a very different pattern of brain activity than they do when they read book-like text. Book readers have a lot of activity in regions associated with language, memory, and visual processing, while Web readers showed activity in the regions associated with decision-making and problem solving” (The Shallows, Pg. 122).
One of the reasons behind the difference between brain activities are the hyperlinks that are found in online texts, which makes the brain focus on short-term decisions. In other words, the need to evaluate different links, potential reading paths, and make the appropriate navigational choices requires constant mental coordination and quick decision-making skills that distracts the brain from the original content on the given text. In this sense, the division of attention strains our cognitive abilities, diminishing our learning and weakening our understanding of the text. As Carr puts it:
Whenever we, as readers, come upon a link, we have to pause, for at least a split second, to allow our prefrontal cortex to evaluate whether or not we should click on it. [Furthermore], the redirection of our mental resources, from reading words to making judgments, may be imperceptible to us, but its been shown to impede comprehension and retention, particularly when it’s repeated frequently.
Furthermore, the Internet age has encouraged people to explore many more topics but at a much superficial level. As online readers, we have become accustomed to skimming through material rather than actually reading the material. Similarly to Ziming Liu’s findings, a science professor at San Jose State University, I have found that reading online texts has made me a less patient reader and as a result, I choose to browse through the online texts in order to find the important key points so as to move on to the next topic or article.
Carr identifies “the ability to skim text [just as important] as the ability to read deeply”, however, the problem lies when readers translate their online reading behaviors to reading books, and decide to skim through books in order to find the relevant information rather than reading the book entirely and understanding not only the important information, but the general themes and ideas as well. Hyperlinks, social media information snippets, and our desire to finish reading quickly by skimming through information has altered the way we read books, and unless we want to lose the magic that comes with being lost in a novel, I suggest we begin by changing our online reading behavior.