Sunday, June 13, 2010

Musings: Skimming

It’s that time of year when the sun is rising at its earliest, and Koko and I were down at the beach this morning to greet it, walking across a broad swath of sand washed clean by a very high tide that had receeded to very low.

Above us, clouds whipped across the sky, puffs colliding with wisps, and a pink and blue rainbow formed in one white patch above the sun, which was sending silver shafts down into a gray sea where dozens of boobies were soaring, hovering, skimming the water, looking for fish.

It’s not unlike the process we follow in perusing the net. I’ve been struck in reading comments on this blog and elsewhere by how often people misinterpret what they read, and it seems to me it’s because we’re all doing a lot more skimming.

When I’m reading on-line, I often feel this push to quickly move on to the next thing, which is just a click away, or to switch back and forth between my mail and web pages. When I'm holding printed material, I find it much easier to give it my full attention.

Then I read a quote in The Week that was excerpted from a fascinating article in “Wired” that was excerpted from Nicholas Carr's new book, “The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains.” The article explored how Internet use is shattering our focus and rerouting our neural pathways:

What kind of brain is the Web giving us? Dozens of studies by psychologists, neurobiologists, and educators point to the same conclusion: When we go online, we enter an environment that promotes cursory reading, hurried and distracted thinking, and superficial learning. Even as the Internet grants us easy access to vast amounts of information, it is turning us into shallower thinkers, literally changing the structure of our brain.

The article goes on to report:

Navigating linked documents, it turned out, entails a lot of mental calisthenics—evaluating hyperlinks, deciding whether to click, adjusting to different formats—that are extraneous to the process of reading. Because it disrupts concentration, such activity weakens comprehension.

So we’re getting much more information, a lot faster, but we’re making less sense of it all, retaining less of what we read. It's sort of like junk food. We consume it and feel full, but have gained no nutrients. And this continues even when we're off line. According to Michael Merzenich, a pioneer of the field of neuroplasticity:

[O]ur online habits continue to reverberate in the workings of our brain cells even when we’re not at a computer. We’re exercising the neural circuits devoted to skimming and multitasking while ignoring those used for reading and thinking deeply. As we multitask online, we are “training our brains to pay attention to the crap.”

Once again, we have made ourselves the guinea pigs in a profound experiment before thinking through just what it portends. As Carr concludes:

What we’re experiencing is, in a metaphorical sense, a reversal of the early trajectory of civilization: We are evolving from cultivators of personal knowledge into hunters and gatherers in the electronic data forest. In the process, we seem fated to sacrifice much of what makes our minds so interesting.


Unknown said...

Maybe we should have been more worried about how "old media" affected our brains...? In that time, news was packaged and fed to us (nightly news, a newspaper, etc.). Consumers of old media had no control over what they could learn about.

Nowadays we are able to search for news that interests us. That can produce a society more informed and engaged in a wide range of subjects. Sure that could be American Idol and such, but it could also be important underreported news (e.g., Kauai land use policy).

If it makes you feel any better, nobody can ignore your blog. ;)

Joan Conrow said...

Casey, I always appreciate your perspectives and thoughtful comments.

Unknown said...

That's very kind of you, Joan. This is thought-provoking stuff!