An article in The Washington Post about the rise of the digital culture altering our reading habits and our brains recently got my attention, and not in a good way. Mostly because I recognized myself as the person they were talking about.
According to the article, the average adult spends five hours a day on the internet now. For some of us it might even be a little more (hello Alex J. Cavanaugh and your hundred blog stops a day). To cope with the avalanche of available data we skim and scan, searching for the key words that will feed us the information we need in the smallest, quickest "eye-bytes" available. Then we move to the next article, the next e-mail, and on to Twitter and Facebook.
The internet, with its photos, videos, ads, and links is apparently teaching us to read in non-linear fashion. The eye darts from one shiny object to another, seeking out what's important. The problem starts when we attempt a more devoted form of reading, as with a novel. We find our brains are still so busy flashing and blinking inside from all the stimulation of the internet and the nimble eye-dancing it requires that it becomes difficult to slow down and concentrate on long, meaningful, linear sentences.
Even the people who study this stuff aren't immune. Maryanne Wolf, a Tufts University cognitive neuroscientist, noticed the change when she sat down to read a novel after being online all day.
'I’m not kidding: I couldn’t do it,”' she said. '“It was torture getting through the first page. I couldn’t force myself to slow down so that I wasn’t skimming, picking out key words, organizing my eye movements to generate the most information at the highest speed. I was so disgusted with myself.”'
I have noticed this difficulty myself after a day of being actively online. As a Digital Immigrant, someone old enough to remember a time before the internet, I used to enjoy reading books for hours. A hundred pages a day was heaven. I can't do that anymore. Some days my mind is too restless to read more than twenty pages at a time. Not when I've got the internet I.V. hooked up and ready to deliver a dose of instant
crack data to my brain. Not when there are cat photos! Memes! And Vlog brothers videos that must be shared! Gah, what's happened to us? And what does it mean for the future of the novel and its readership?
Ironically, I know I need to keep this post short because so many of you are speeding by as you participate in the A to Z challenge. I understand you don't have time for a long read, but I would encourage you to bookmark the article and check it out when you do have time. Any effect on reading habits in the future is going to impact authors so it's worth a gander, a glance, or even an in-depth review.
Have you noticed your reading habits changing as a result of the internet? Are you skimming more than you used to? Did you notice I highlighted the question in bold so your eye wouldn't skip over it? :P
Creative Commons photo by Mike Licht