“We are what we read” (Joseph Epstein)
Scrolling through some of the latest online newsfeeds today I could choose to read about 5 Mistakes Companies Make About Growth Mindsets, 5 Jobs in Short Supply, 10 Benefits of Speaking Truthfully, 5 Simple Steps to Stop Kids Bickering or the 8 Most Haunted Places in my local area.
It gets me wondering – why do we need 5, 8 or 10 reasons to read these articles? Can we be drawn to a piece of writing that we would like to read simply because it sounds like an interesting topic? Or is this an impossibly idealistic notion in a world where on average we encounter over 100, 000 words each day via email, text, ads, social media and the rest of our daily experience?
Don't get me wrong, I myself have become victim to this style of writing in recent times (and it is even encouraged to writers in the submission guidelines of some online media outlets), so without sounding hypocritical I would like to genuinely explore this rising trend and in particular question its overall benefit to what author Maryanne Wolf describes as our 'reading brain'.
According to Maryanne Wolf, Director of the Centre for Reading and Language Research and Author of Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain; the human brain’s current state of transition is from that of a ‘reading brain’ to an increasingly digital one. She tells the story of the reading brain in the context of what she describes as our ‘unfolding intellectual evolution’ and questions whether there is sufficient scope in todays ‘Google universe’ to adequately process digital information inferentially, analytically and critically.
Journalist and Author Nicholas Carr supports these concerns in his book The Shallows: How the Internet is Changing the Way We Think, Read and Remember, arguing that the internet’s small ‘info-bites’ and ‘quick-links’ format is having a profound impact on the way our brain functions over time, providing a never-ending landscape of distraction, concentrated content and endless detours away from wherever it was that the user intended to go.
Consuming information in ‘bits rather than books’, this processing of digital media is believed to change the chemistry of our brains, resulting in a fundamental shift in how we read.
The effect that this shift is having on reading behaviours such as our increasingly diminishing attention spans should not be underestimated. According to scientists, the age of smartphones has rendered the attention span of the human brain so short that even a goldfish can hold a thought for longer. The alarming results (although should we really be alarmed?!) show that since the year 2000 the average human attention span has fallen from 12 seconds to a mere eight seconds. Perhaps the ’10-reasons’ article format merely represents a ‘piggybacking’ off this declining trend in a desperate attempt to capture the attention of readers?
Wolf reminds us that we were never born to read, indeed we did not become a literate species until human beings invented reading a few thousand years ago. She argues that with this remarkable invention, the way our brain is organised was altered, which expanded our thought processes and proved pivotal to the intellectual evolution of our species. Well before the ’10-reasons-to-read-an-article’ went mainstream, the internet was blamed for ‘dumbing us down’, luring us away from the ‘intellectual banquet’ of books and/or any writing that may require deep thought.
It is a topic that has many therapists and education experts deeply concerned, with one particular occupational therapist citing declines in legibility and fine motor skills, as well as the withdrawal from writing by kids. And the buck certainly doesn’t stop with children. In a recent British survey, one in three respondents admitted to not writing anything by hand in the previous six months. Six months! These types of statistics are cause to suggest the rather grim state of our literary capabilities, and as our brains continue to struggle to adapt to the expectations of fast streams of data is it any wonder authors such as Carr have labelled our brains ‘magpie minds’? This so called ‘strip mining’ of relevant content replaces the slow excavation of meaning, and one could safely assume that the sharp declines in our attention spans are only going to further prevent this.
Could this be enough evidence to propose ‘10 Reasons to Reclaim our Human Reading Brains’?
Let’s hope so!
Hi there and thanks for dropping by! I'm Tehla Jane and I'm a self-confessed word nerd, bookworm and yoga devotee from Wollongong, Australia. I love to wonder and wander, and especially love spending time with my two little girls and hubby Glen. My blog is inspired by my daily musings in my trusty journal, where I scribble out endless pages in almost illegible handwriting and occasionally convert this into a typed format! Welcome!