Brain Rewires Itself, Panic at Eleven.

April 7, 2014, 7:16 pm

Neuroscientists are discovering that online reading rewires the brain in favor of high speed sorting and filtering, rather than deep concentrated reading:

To cognitive neuroscientists, [the rewiring] is the subject of great fascination and growing alarm. Humans, they warn, seem to be developing digital brains with new circuits for skimming through the torrent of information online. This alternative way of reading is competing with traditional deep reading circuitry developed over several millennia.

This “eye byte culture” (awesome phrase, by the way) becomes, of course, a source of panic. English professors are consulted. The result?

“They cannot read ‘Middlemarch.’ They cannot read William James or Henry James,” [the scientist] said. “I can’t tell you how many people have written to me about this phenomenon. The students no longer will or are perhaps incapable of dealing with the convoluted syntax and construction of George Eliot and Henry James…How much syntax is lost, and what is syntax but the reflection of our convoluted thoughts? My worry is we will lose the ability to express or read this convoluted prose. Will we become Twitter brains?”

Where to start with this? First, let me agree that deep reading skills are useful, and that the ability to work your way through a long book, understanding convoluted sentences, situations, and the like, is incredibly helpful. I’m a historian. I make my students read long, involved books because I want them to have practice in handling exactly that kind of complexity.

But making that skill the be-all and end-all of reading abilities is dangerous tunnel vision. The ability to read quickly and filter based on that reading is also a useful skill, and one that the Internet seems to be developing. This is a good thing. While I have many students who have trouble ploughing through large books, I also have many students who get stuck in substantial works, working their way through them slowly, when what they need to be doing is filtering them for useful content and then moving on to the next. This is absolutely critical for research papers, where the need is to wade through the hundreds of sources on your topic and decide quickly on which is useful and which isn’t. There’s no time to read deeply all the works on Victorian crime (a topic that one of my students is working on this term) in a single semester.

In addition, I think I’d invoke the Scottish “bastard verdict” of “not proven” to suggest that the article assumes a level of reading ability that I’m not sure ever really existed, poignant anecdotes aside. Many people have *always* struggled to follow dense books. People used the “personal edit” (my phrase for skipping over long sections of expository, adjective-laden, and just plain dull text) on William James and Henry James from the moment their books existed, at a time when “twitter” just meant “fast and usually high-pitched sounds.” Cliff Notes are a resolutely pre-Internet invention. Short of any kind of scientific result (study plus replication), I’m deeply skeptical than this is anything other than one more branch of the widening kudzu that is the moral panic over the Internet.

Humanity is being destroyed by technology, and always has been being destroyed by technology.

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