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Remapping the neural circuitry

Over the past few years I’ve had an uncomfortable sense that someone, or something, has been tinkering with my brain, remapping the neural circuitry, reprogramming the memory. My mind isn’t going—so far as I can tell—but it’s changing. I’m not thinking the way I used to think. I can feel it most strongly when I’m reading. [...] Now my concentration often starts to drift after two or three pages. I get fidgety, lose the thread, begin looking for something else to do. I feel as if I’m always dragging my wayward brain back to the text. The deep reading that used to come naturally has become a struggle.


Brain metaphors

The process of adapting to new intellectual technologies is reflected in the changing metaphors we use to explain ourselves to ourselves. When the mechanical clock arrived, people began thinking of their brains as operating “like clockwork.” Today, in the age of software, we have come to think of them as operating “like computers.” But the changes, neuroscience tells us, go much deeper than metaphor. Thanks to our brain’s plasticity, the adaptation occurs also at a biological level.


Scuba diver in the sea of words

As the media theorist Marshall McLuhan pointed out in the 1960s, media are not just passive channels of information. They supply the stuff of thought, but they also shape the process of thought. And what the Net seems to be doing is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation. My mind now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles. Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski.


Nietzsche’s typewriter

...the [typewriter] had a subtler effect on his work. One of Nietzsche’s friends, a composer, noticed a change in the style of his writing. His already terse prose had become even tighter, more telegraphic. “Perhaps you will through this instrument even take to a new idiom,” the friend wrote in a letter, noting that, in his own work, his “‘thoughts’ in music and language often depend on the quality of pen and paper.”

“You are right,” Nietzsche replied, “our writing equipment takes part in the forming of our thoughts.” Under the sway of the machine, writes the German media scholar Friedrich A. Kittler , Nietzsche’s prose “changed from arguments to aphorisms, from thoughts to puns, from rhetoric to telegram style.”


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Primed for distraction

The suggestion that, in a few generations, our experience of media will be reinvented shouldn't surprise us. We should, instead, marvel at the fact we ever read books at all. Great researchers such as Maryanne Wolf and Alison Gopnik remind us that the human brain was never designed to read. Rather, elements of the visual cortex – which evolved for other purposes – were hijacked in order to pull off the trick. The deep reading that a novel demands doesn't come easy and it was never "natural." Our default state is, if anything, one of distractedness. The gaze shifts, the attention flits; we scour the environment for clues. (Otherwise, that predator in the shadows might eat us.) How primed are we for distraction? One famous study found humans would rather give themselves electric shocks than sit alone with their thoughts for 10 minutes. We disobey those instincts every time we get lost in a book.


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Information overload

Yet back [in 2010] the evidence already was strongly suggesting that the internet was a very powerful way to access lots of information very quickly. We were all concentrating on that great new bounty of information: the more information, the better — the faster it comes to me, the better.

What we lost sight of was how we actually take that information into our mind. There’s all sorts of very good evidence that if you’re distracted — if your attention is shifting very quickly — you can gather lots of information in a very swift fashion, but you’re not going to assemble it very well into knowledge. It’s going to just remain bits of information. You’re not going to develop a rich store of personal knowledge, which is all about connections and associations.


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Cynical readers

...online life makes me into a different kind of reader – a cynical one. I scrounge, now, for the useful fact; I zero in on the shareable link. My attention – and thus my experience – fractures. Online reading is about clicks, and comments, and points. When I take that mindset and try to apply it to a beaten-up paperback, my mind bucks.

[...]

When we become cynical readers – when we read in the disjointed, goal-oriented way that online life encourages – we stop exercising our attention. We stop reading with a sense of faith that some larger purpose may be served. This doesn't mean we're reading less – not at all. In fact, we live in a text-gorged society in which the most fleeting thought is a thumb-dash away from posterity. [...] For myself: I know I'm not reading less, but I also know I'm reading worse.


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I have forgotten how to read

“For a long time Michael Harris convinced himself that a childhood spent immersed in old-fashioned books would insulate him from our new media climate – that he could keep on reading in the old way because his mind was formed in pre-internet days. He was wrong.”


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Matuschak on book absorbtion

Have you ever had a book like this—one you’d read—come up in conversation, only to discover that you’d absorbed what amounts to a few sentences? I’ll be honest: it happens to me regularly. Often things go well at first. I’ll feel I can sketch the basic claims, paint the surface; but when someone asks a basic probing question, the edifice instantly collapses. Sometimes it’s a memory issue: I simply can’t recall the relevant details. But just as often, as I grasp about, I’ll realize I had never really understood the idea in question, though I’d certainly thought I understood when I read the book. Indeed, I’ll realize that I had barely noticed how little I’d absorbed until that very moment.

[...]

Some people may have read Thinking, Fast and Slow for entertainment value, but in exchange for their tens of millions of collective hours, I suspect many readers—or maybe even most readers—expected to walk away with more. Why else would we feel so startled when we notice how little we’ve absorbed from something we’ve read?

All this suggests a peculiar conclusion: as a medium, books are surprisingly bad at conveying knowledge, and readers mostly don’t realize it.


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Reading gains and losses

One thing that changed pretty dramatically is that the visual cortex, the part of our brain that processes our vision, became dedicated to deciphering text. [...]

As we practice that, more and more neurons get dedicated to reading. Eventually, you no longer have to decipher a particular letter or even a particular word because our brains represent those letters and words — it’s automatic. So we got all the benefits that come with being good readers, whether it’s the value of losing yourself in a novel or the value of gaining complex information from some sophisticated nonfiction book.

But we also lost something. One thing we lost is a lot of our visual acuity in reading nature and reading the world. If you look at older cultures that aren’t text-based, you see incredible abilities to, for instance, navigate by all sorts of natural signs. This acuity in reading the world, which also requires a lot of the visual cortex, we lost some of that simply because we had to reprogram our brain to become good readers.


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Birkerts on the diminishment of literature

Writing in 1994, [Sven Birkerts] worried that distractedness and surficiality would win out. The “duration state” we enter through a turned page would be lost in a world of increasing speed and relentless connectivity, and with it our ability to make meaning out of narratives, both fictional and lived. The diminishment of literature—of sustained reading, of writing as the product of a single focused mind—would diminish the self in turn, rendering us less and less able to grasp both the breadth of our world and the depth of our own consciousness.