Digital Brains?

Is our internet usage re-wiring the way we read? That’s the question posed by an article in today’s Washington Post. The article cites a Tufts cognitive neuroscientist, Maryanne Wolf, who is expressing a growing concern that extensive internet usage is re-wiring the way way we read to skim and pull out key bits of information rather than the sequential, linear way we read a page of text.

By Aschoeke [GFDL (, CC-BY-SA-3.0 ( or CC-BY-SA-2.5-2.0-1.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

By Aschoeke [GFDL (, CC-BY-SA-3.0 ( or CC-BY-SA-2.5-2.0-1.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

From the article at least, it appears that this concern is based on a growing body of anecdotal evidence, including Wolf’s own experience of trying to read Herman Hesse after a day of work on the internet.  Apparently, English department chairs from around the country are reporting the increasing difficulties students have reading classic texts, and particularly understanding long, compound sentences.

The big difference is the skimming, browsing behavior we use on the internet. Sentences tend to be shorter, we are more inclined to follow hyperlinks, text is much more interspersed with graphics,  and we look for keywords rather than read through a text. What has been noted, at least anecdotally, is that we carry over the same behavior when we read printed texts.

All this sounds like a great opportunity for a new area of cognitive neuroscience research. More immediately, though, is the question of what is to be done? For some, the response is to unplug and there is a movement afoot called “slow reading”, celebrating the unhurried engagement with a text.

I tend to work in both worlds, as is evident in the writing of this blog, and the books I review. And the article gives me pause. I see some of the same habits of skimming creeping into my reading of printed texts. I sometimes struggle with comprehending closely written works. And I wonder if I’m a bit like the hard of hearing who complains that everyone else is talking too softly. When I complain about “difficult to understand” writing, is it the writer, or is it me, the reader who has the problem?

The Post article speaks of becoming “bi-literate”, of training our children, or even ourselves, to read both ways. It seems that if this is to be the case, the cultivating of the pleasure of slow reading must be an intentional effort to counter the siren call of visual media, which is what we really are dealing with on a computer screen.

I am curious: have others noticed any change in their reading habits, particularly if you were a pre-internet reader (say before about 1995)? Your thoughts?

3 thoughts on “Digital Brains?

  1. I share your concerns. While anecdotal perhaps (memory isn’t always accurate) – I find that I can not read a tangible book for as long of a period of time as I did years ago. Back then, I could get absorbed in a book for hours. Now I seem to need more breaks, and simply can’t read for so long. Maybe the internet, and the way you jump around when using it from place to place, has limited my attention span.

    Here is an article I shared on my blog awhile back on a related topic. – I seem to do a lot of “cognitive mapping” that the article talks about.


    • Laura, thanks for the link and for pointing out the idea of “cognitive mapping”. Personally, I wonder if age is also a reason for my decreased attention, but this article made me wonder about the impact of the internet as well.


  2. Pingback: Don’t Judge a Classic by Your High School Experience! « Bob on Books

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