Changing Brains

An article in the Washington Post the other day argued that ‘reading online’ is changing the way that our brains work. Basically, it says that because reading online is often either very brief amounts of information – like text messages or tweets or facebook posts – or connected to and surrounded by all kinds of other information, videos and hyperlinks, etc., it is rewiring our brains to skim and search for information. Anecdotal evidence in the article suggests that people are having a hard time switching back to in-depth reading.


This is actually really relevant to me, as I work at a magazine where we’re debating the switch to online submissions. Right now, I spend about 20 hours a week reading paper manuscripts. If we switch, pretty much all that time will be spent reading on a device.


The article is written pretty much in a doomsday style: oh, no, our brains are changing and now we will no longer be able to read the classics!! But I think the author elides two different things: one are these short bursts of information like text messages, and the other is reading a longer work on an electronic device. I mean, I already read a lot of news online – while sometimes I might skim to the end of the article or stop reading in the middle, most of the time I read the whole thing through. And in the past, didn’t people used to skim articles in the newspaper? I’m just not as sure as the author that this is really changing society in a fundamental way.


The more interesting idea, to me, was the implicit one that we might not have easy access to our own past. When I lived in New York, I had a lot of Turkish friends, and they often complained that Ataturk’s decision to switch the Turkish language from an Arabic script to a Latin one meant that they really couldn’t read anything that had been written prior to the 20th century. At the time, I wondered how hard it could be to learn to read a different script. But maybe you had to read the text in a whole different way? It’s not that they couldn’t learn to do it, but that it wasn’t easy.


I don’t know. I have a kind of argument I haven’t really worked out that people are reading more nowadays because of the internet. More on that coming soon.


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