Is being online constantly killing our ability to read and comprehend books and if so, how will that affect authors and the future of publishing?
“When we go online, we enter an environment that promotes cursory reading, hurried and distracted thinking, and superficial learning. Even as the Internet grants us easy access to vast amounts of information, it is turning us into shallower thinkers, literally changing the structure of our brain.” -Nicholas Carr*
As a science geek and former neurology nurse, I’m fascinated by the human brain. When I was a nursing student I actually got to see one up close! The surgeon insisted that I stand on a footstool behind him and watch the brain surgery over his shoulder (which alarmingly reminded me of the “Junior Mint” episode of Seinfeld).
I stepped up and found myself peering down at a real live human brain, pulsating in perfect time with the heart monitor a few feet away. I was in awe. This gelatinous looking alien mass of specifically organized pasta strands was essentially the circuit board of the human body? I’ve been hooked ever since. (Although I was a little disappointed that it didn’t have the cool blue electrical pathways running through it like the brains in commercials and documentaries do.)
A couple decades later and I’m now extracting books from people’s brains and naturally fascinated by all things writing and reading (job security for the writing). And now there’s this thing called the internet that we can use to communicate. But the catch is, it can communicate back to us – whenever it wants. This includes interrupting our trains of thought, sometimes completely derailing them, which is inconvenient to say the least if you’re trying to do something requiring mental concentration – like reading or writing.
I started noticing the effects of these interruptions on my own “creative brain” – phone go flashy, inbox go dingy… writing go stoppy. The more frequently I allowed interruptions, the more my overall concentration was affected, even during the periods of time in between when I was using the devices.
For instance, if I spent 12 hours a day allowing myself to be interrupted (phone on, browser up, tabs open), it was incredibly difficult to then switch gears and perform high concentration tasks like reading, writing, ghostwriting for clients, and any sort of creative problem solving or critical thinking.
Without waiting for science to confirm the connection between the internet and how our brains work, I started making adjustments as to how I choose to allow technology access to my brain. I intentionally began spending less time online, and engaging in more “unplugged time,” writing rough drafts with a notebook and pen.
By last fall, I realized that my habit of “checking my phone” was derailing my thought trains. So I deleted nearly every app from my phone to avoid the temptation. I also began working on the habit of making myself STOP before unconsciously grabbing my phone and “checking it,” asking myself what I was actually checking for and if I didn’t have a good answer, putting it down.
Along the way I started noticing (thank you confirmation bias) articles exploring if and how the internet is changing the “wiring” in our brain, especially when it comes to reading long-form written pieces – like this blog post, and also books. Some of the article authors presented evidence that as human beings, our co-dependent relationship with the internet is killing our ability to read things longer than a Facebook post.
I left those articles with the unsettling question: “Well if the way we use the internet is keeping us from READING books, how on earth will we be able to continue WRITING them???”
I should note that this concept of the internet “rewiring our brains” seems to be a disputed one, with many writers and researchers stating that it’s simply not true and certainly not that simple. Also recall from my nursing school story that I didn’t see a single wire in that patient’s brain.
Despite my fascination with this subject, I’m not out to settle that dispute.
What I am out to do is:
1) Master the awareness, operations, and preservation of my own brain functions especially as related to technology, reading, writing, and other critical thinking functions that require long, deep, uninterrupted trains of thought.
2) Continue reading up on the subject.
3) Share what I find out with other authors like you.
Yesterday, I received my copy of Nicholas Carr’s book The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, a 2011 Pulitzer Prize nominee in General Nonfiction. He’s the guy I quoted at the top of this blog.
He also said this:
“The Internet is an interruption system. It seizes our attention only to scramble it… Every time we shift our attention, the brain has to reorient itself, further taxing our mental resources.”
I’m interested in the author’s point of view on this topic and The Shallows is a great place to start.