Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Dumbing Down in the Information Age

There was a time when I used to read books.  And magazines.  I would spread a newspaper across my morning table and read.  Sequentially.  My eyes would move from corner to corner... in a straight line.  It was steady and it was paced.

Now I scan.  I bounce and dart and I consume far more information per millisecond than ever before.  The internet age (replete with iPads, Google newsfeeds, smartphones, twitter bursts, etc.) has made me much, much smarter.

Or, maybe not.

A recent Wall Street Journal essay suggests that this new style of information and content consumption may actually have a negative effect.  From the piece:
The picture emerging from the research is deeply troubling, at least to anyone who values the depth, rather than just the velocity, of human thought. People who read text studded with links, the studies show, comprehend less than those who read traditional linear text. People who watch busy multimedia presentations remember less than those who take in information in a more sedate and focused manner. People who are continually distracted by emails, alerts and other messages understand less than those who are able to concentrate. And people who juggle many tasks are less creative and less productive than those who do one thing at a time.

The common thread in these disabilities is the division of attention. The richness of our thoughts, our memories and even our personalities hinges on our ability to focus the mind and sustain concentration. Only when we pay deep attention to a new piece of information are we able to associate it "meaningfully and systematically with knowledge already well established in memory," writes the Nobel Prize-winning neuroscientist Eric Kandel. Such associations are essential to mastering complex concepts.

When we're constantly distracted and interrupted, as we tend to be online, our brains are unable to forge the strong and expansive neural connections that give depth and distinctiveness to our thinking. We become mere signal-processing units, quickly shepherding disjointed bits of information into and then out of short-term memory.
There's something to this.  Future psychologists and biologists will be well versed on the long-term effect of the new consumption model.  In the mean time, I'm suddenly contemplating canceling my Boston Globe subsription which comes to me daily via the Amazon Kindle software on my Apple iPad and returning to paper. 

The entire piece is here.

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