Recently I read a book that was relevant to me as a writer, a reader, an educator and just a plan old person with a brain. THE SHALLOWS: WHAT THE INTERNET IS DOING TO OUR BRAINS by Nicholas Carr was a fascinating look at how our brain processes information when we read, and how much the different mediums of the story can effect that.
The book at its most basic boils down to the phrase “neurons that fire together, wire together.” I saw this for myself in college when our psychology professor performed a very basic classroom experiment where a line of people held hands, and each squeezed the hand of the person standing next to them after feeling the squeeze from the person on their left. The exercise was timed, and repeated. The length of time it took for the last person to get their “squeeze” shortened considerably with each repetition, because the brains of the participants were re-organizing, and the firing neurons necessary to pass on the squeeze were binding together with each repetition, building chemical bridges to each other that strengthened with each use, and passed along the information more quickly.
This is how we learn. This is why practice makes perfect. This is why lifelong readers can process information faster than those who pick up the habit later in life. This is also why reading something off a screen creates a vastly different brain experience than reading the printed page. One that could lead to the loss of deep reading and immersion in the text.
Before you surround me with pitchforks and torches, be aware that the author of the book isn’t anti-technology. He’s not against e-readers or net-surfing. But the information regarding how our brain processes text on the internet is overwhelming.
When you look at something on the internet, you’re also processing the pictures on the side, the flashing ads designed to distract you and gain your attention, even a super helpful hyper-text link designed to lead you to the discovery of more information is actually impeding your learning process. Your multi-tasking brain has to work to ignore those elements, while your quiet center designed to process and pass along the relevant information into your long-term memory is stymied by the efficient multi-tasking brain. Carr sites multiple studies where the participants were unable to recall salient facts from articles that contained hypertext links, simply because their brain was thinking, “Go back to that, go back to that, don’t forget to go back to that,” as opposed to losing themselves to the relevant information right in front of them.
I could go on, this book talk only encapsulates a small amount of the studies and the issues referenced by the book. But as a writer, I had to think about the new wave of interactive e-books that people have been talking about. Do I sacrifice an immersed reader, lost to my world and my characters, if I lead them to pieces of artwork, or snippets of song that I found inspiring while writing?
I’m not sure.
And while I do enjoy a nice e-read on the iPad every now and then, I have noticed that I consciously choose to download only the little beach reads to that helpful little device. Anything requiring full immersion and due process of thought I still require a good old pressed piece of dead tree.
So maybe my brain was onto something?