Has Your Brain Lost It's Processing Ability?

In the past, humans have developed their brain capacity for “deep reading,” which is, to process information, relating it to our existing knowledge, and asking questions about the material. However, according to researchers, this is not the case with digital readers. Since they tend to jump from one snippet to another, and, as such, they are losing the ability to think carefully and remember. 

 The way many people read today — tapping, skimming, swiping – is affecting how well we process and remember information, says Maryanne Wolf, a neuroscientist and author of Reader Come Home, who studies digital reading, says constantly processing snippets of text and video is reducing our ability to think deeply about all content. 

She said people who are overwhelmed with information devote less intellectual effort to reading carefully. In an essay for Harvard’s Nieman Foundation, she  said that people need to pull back from “the incessant need to fill every millisecond with new information.” As an experiment, she reread a book, a piece of literature that she had thoroughly enjoyed in college. 

The second time, she found the book dense and too complicated and could no longer concentrate on the material long enough to think carefully about it. Over many years, humans develop expert brain circuitry that allows them to read, evaluate the information, connect it to what they already know, and raise questions about its authenticity and about alternative perspectives. This is called “deep reading.” But sound bites and text bites reflect a culture that has become too distracted by and too drawn to the next piece of new information.

 Consequently, people don’t allow themselves to think, Wolf said. She urges people to allocate time for careful thinking by reading a novel and going to a quiet space and contemplating. Deeper reading allows you to immerse yourself, critically analyze the material, understand the perspectives of others, and empathize with people you read about, be they newsmakers or characters in a novel. 

Processing information quickly, scanning, word-spotting, not only leads to bad reading habits but affects the brain’s ability to read and think. Wolf is not alone in her research. A study in the U.K. found that readers using Kindles performed “significantly” worse than paperback readers at recalling when events occurred in a mystery story. The study also found that people reading paper pages scored higher than iPad readers on questions relating to how they empathized with characters and how well they remembered the storyline.

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  1. great post and raises many more questions. First off, i would agree that general knowledge acquisition declines over time. But the other side of that is that college students, are focused on learning. Hopefully focused on expanding their understanding.

    as we get older generalists fae away – the 10,000 practical hour requirement to become an expert forces some general learning aside.

    I suspect the better test would be – pick a topic in a field, pick people studying that field in college and test them.

    Then test an expert in that field. My guess is you would get a much different answer.


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