Online reading is rewiring our brains

It’s no secret that the web has changed the way we read.  Whether it’s a blog, email newsletter, web page or other type of online content, we quickly scan, then link to something else, consuming information at break-neck speed.

This has some people worried. According to an intriguing article I recently read Is Google making us stupid? our new reading behaviour is rewiring our brains, just as hand writing, clocks, assembly lines and other innovations have through history.

The author, Nicholas Carr, laments our declining ability to read long   tracts, grasp ambiguity and think deeply. Lighten up, Nicholas. Before  you rush to judgment, let’s wait for the scientific evidence. In the meantime, let’s consider how this growing reading behaviour may be enriching our minds.

Snack vs feast

Nicholas cites a study of the online reading habits of researchers who snacked on many tidbits of internet information rather than finishing the long feast of research papers. Yes, they were not plumbing the depths of the articles. But, assuming they expended an equivalent amount of energy online snacking and thinking, most were still nourishing their minds, just in a different way.

Of course, it’s up to the individual, perhaps with a prod from a teacher, boss or coach, to decide whether to connect those snacks through critical thinking. It’s also up to us to decide how we slice, splice and spice the snacks with knowledge we consume from books, television, personal conversations and other sources.

Exercise the brain

Like muscles, brains strengthen through exercise. The more the reader thinks about what she is reading, the more her brain will develop. Like exercise, more difficult or faster thinking should produce more growth.  What’s more, cross-training with different kinds of mental activities, from solving Sudoku puzzles to playing the violin, should build a better brain.

So let’s not be too quick to dismiss scanning and linking as part of a healthy brain workout.

Nicholas implies that the quick summaries we find on the Internet lack the depth of longer texts. But good online content succinctly captures the important points and perspectives. That makes it easier to link these golden nuggets to each other, to make sense or even gain insight from the rich range of sources the internet offers.

Well-written content summarized for online reading is not superficial. It spares readers from having to wade through unnecessarily long writing. It’s quite similar to the skill of newspaper writers and editors in summarizing the most important information in the first paragraph. Of the abstracts for academic papers. It’s not new.

Get to the point

The leap to scanning and linking has simply made clear, concise summaries more important than ever. People writing email newsletters, blogs, web sites or anything else that’s read on the screen need to make it easy to grasp the basic essence of their message. In this way, they also make it easier for  readers to mentally link their messages to the main ideas from other sources.

So yes, Nicholas, how we read is changing. But there’s no need to rush to judgment. The couch potatoes passively absorbing laugh-tracked sitcoms or cat photo web sites probably aren’t growing as many brain cells and synapses as the people who are learning Mandarin or analysing DNA sequences.

Get smarter

My answer to the question: Is Google making us stupid? is No.

Maybe Google may help us evolve into smarter beings, providing we don’t abandon other brain-stimulating activities.

In fact, I’ll bet neuroscientists will confirm that people who combine energetic snacking on internet tidbits and focused feasting on long, complex texts will develop bigger, better brains.

What do you think?

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2 Responses

  1. I don’t believe Google is making us stupid.

    If intelligence is based on the amount of information one consumes and hopefully retains, then having the ability to consume a variety of information nuggets as quickly as possible from people around the globe, would seem to be more valuable than having to sit through volumes of one person’s view on any particular topic.

    Two quotes come to mind:
    “Obtain information with specific intent – a.k.a. nugget thinking” – Casey Combden (multi-millionaire)

    “There are gifted and intelligent people all around the world from every race and creed.” Larry Page (Google CEO)

  2. Great comment. Let me stress, however, that it’s not simply a question of consuming information but of using your brain to analyse and do other things with the information.

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