Forgetting How to Read? Stop Reading Online

Matt Wright-Steel

Fifty-odd posts on Facebook and Twitter, mostly skimmed. A recap of Sunday’s football action. Four emails. Two full news articles, plus the rest of the headlines and subheads on the front page. A fake news article, too. Throughout, an online chat with one friend and a few text messages traded with another.

That’s the diet of text I consumed this morning as I put off figuring out how to open this essay. Looking back on it reminds me of those old daytime talk-show segments about parents who let their massively obese kids eat entire pizza pies and gallons of ice cream for lunch. I’m not proud of it. But I also know I’m far from alone. Your reading habits may not exactly mirror mine at my most dilettantish, insatiable and distracted, but no doubt they’ve also gotten worse over these past few years of increased Internet connectivity. Like that poor kid’s ice cream, it’s all harmless fun until you find yourself binging on empty online calories every day, as many of us now do.

We can no longer deny the pernicious cognitive effects of reading online. In July yet another study on the subject was released, this one by researchers at Victoria University of Wellington, in New Zealand. Their title—“Is Google Making Us Stupid? The Impact of the Internet on Reading Behaviour”—promises a clear verdict, and indeed the data is persuasive. They found that when participants read offline, they performed better in concentration, comprehension, absorption and recall. Online readers performed better in only one category: total words consumed.

Lead researcher Val Hooper took the findings as an opportunity to raise a flag of concern—but not the concern you might think. Instead of decrying the mind-numbing consequences of shifting our reading habits online, Hooper frets that an old-fashioned “linear” reading culture—comprising parents, teachers, scholars and authors who tend to read and write in a manner requiring comprehension and recall, largely because they’ve developed and maintained an ability to focus on text for more than a minute or two at a time—is holding back the next generation of digital-native youngsters.

“The structure of much of what we are reading is inappropriate for the way in which we’re receiving information now,” Hooper warned in a press release accompanying the study. “We need to learn how to read and write ‘digitally,’ as well as how to effectively interpret and retain information we read online. If you think about how we’re training our children to read, they’re being trained by those who were trained in the linear fashion. So it will take at least a generation for significant change to happen.”

Hooper’s logic is symptomatic of our era. We’re so entranced by the promise of the Internet that we explain away any evidence of the medium’s negative effects as the mere growing pains of a glorious new digital consciousness. As with the utopian visions of previous centuries, however, the ship of our digital dreams isn’t necessarily equipped to navigate the rocky banks of human nature—in this case, a neural architecture that is in many ways fundamentally unsuited to an over-stimulated, always-online environment.

Allow me to offer a contrasting vision: The Internet is an amazing creation, yes, a testament to human ingenuity in the delivery of both everyday necessities and enjoyable junk. So is the McDonald’s drive-thru. Both entities have by now been recognized as addictive and harmful if frequented too often. Over the past few decades we’ve come to a widespread awareness of what fast food does to our bodies. If we want to maintain the kind of thoughtful, reflective, curious minds that engineered the Internet in the first place, it’s time to face up to what reading online is doing to our brains.

Modern life is too busy to finish every #longread. For instance, you—especially if you’re reading this online—are probably by now facing a decision point: read, skim or click away. Like any writer, I appreciate your patronage, even in the smallest quantum of readerly consideration. At the risk of seeming greedy, however, I’d like to ask for more, and not just for me, but for whomever and whatever you plan to read today. I want your sustained and focused attention. A precious commodity, I know. To help you trust me with it, let me set you at ease on a few points:

1) I’m not an old crank. Born in 1982, I’m actually at the leading edge of the so-called millennial generation. As such, I learned to read and to love books in a world without websites. Then the Internet arrived in my home, and I’ve been using it daily since the beginning of high school. I can’t imagine getting by without it.

2) I’m not here to judge. I struggle with my own reading habits, as noted above. For a couple of years—roughly coinciding with the recent sharp rise in the amount of time the average American spends looking at a screen every day (from seven and a half hours in 2010 to nine and a half in 2013)—I was not reading my usual lot of books, either. I rationalized the drop-off by referencing my ravenous consumption of online reading material. And I’m a writer; reading is one of my stocks-in-trade. I can only imagine what these recent years of increasing connectivity have meant for more casual readers.

3) I’m no Luddite. I don’t think we should go back to sending business correspondence through the postal service, buying hardcover encyclopedia sets and annual update volumes, or making pen-and-ink drawings of our brunch plates to share with friends around the hearth while someone pounds out a tune on the family piano. Like antibiotics and industrial farming, the Internet is a boon to civilization and—for many of us—to our personal quality of life. There’s no going back. But, as with other technological advances, the Internet also offers pitfalls that challenge us to develop better habits, among which we should include the conscious cultivation of our brains with offline reading.

I’m not the only one who thinks so. The popularity of apps like Freedom and Cold Turkey, which block Internet access in the name of productivity, points to a rising awareness that offline time needs to be carved out by any means necessary—even by means of a technology that, at your direction, prevents you from doing what you could, in theory, simply choose not to do. Similarly, in apparent recognition that many users prefer not to be distracted by the Internet while reading, Amazon seems committed to keeping email and Web-browsing capabilities off some of its e-reader models, including the popular Kindle Paperwhite. (Here it’s worth noting the difference between electronic reading, using offline devices like the Paperwhite, and online reading. The latter is dangerous, as this essay will continue to discuss; the former is a promising development and subject to very few of the same criticisms, so long as electronic and online don’t come hand in hand.) The market is beginning to speak.

So are scholars. Andrew Dillon, dean of the University of Texas at Austin School of Information, has recently discussed online reading in interviews with newspapers and magazines across the country. He describes the online environment as full of habit-forming stimuli, from links that we click partially for the tiny dopamine reward of a new screen to constantly refreshing displays that tickle our anticipation for ever-newer “news.”

“This type of interactive style is hard to break, so when we do try to settle down with a single text for an extended period of time, there is a form of withdrawal from the activity of online behavior that needs to be consciously managed,” Dillon said in a phone interview.

This withdrawal effect—which we might experience as feeling bored, antsy, distracted or just mindlessly inclined toward our smartphones—can be enough to make us put down a book altogether. And when we habitually avoid reading tasks that last more than a few minutes or require deep concentration, we begin slowly to lose the skill, like a foreign language we cease to practice.

“While we might say that people now spend more time reading than ever before, they are reading in a particularly non-extended manner, so it is reasonable to assume that the focused, lengthy reading skill that we cherish as the mark of an educated person must be exercised routinely if it is to be sustained,” Dillon said.

“Is Google Making Us Stupid?” is not a new question. Type it into your search bar and you may not get a straight answer, but you will find Nicholas Carr’s groundbreaking 2008 Atlantic essay of the same title, which sought an answer in the intersection of neuroscience and psychology. Later expanded into his 2010 Pulitzer Prize-finalist book, The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, Carr’s work is required reading for anyone troubled by digital-era changes to his or her intellectual and interior life.

“For the last five centuries, ever since Gutenberg’s printing press made book reading a populist pursuit,” Carr writes, “the linear, literary mind has been at the center of art, science, and society. As supple as it is subtle, it’s been the imaginative mind of the Renaissance, the rational mind of the Enlightenment, the inventive mind of the Industrial Revolution, even the subversive mind of Modernism. It may soon be yesterday’s mind.”

The addictive nature of online clicking and browsing is just one part of Carr’s argument. He also raises questions about the limits of subtlety, irony and emotional depth in a medium built for skimming. (For instance, a 2013 study has shown that reading literary fiction makes readers more empathic; can multitasked, non-linear reading replicate this effect?) Carr’s most penetrating line of argument, however, has to do with “working memory” and the Internet’s effect on memory consolidation.

We’re all familiar, from Hollywood and comic books, with the image of a superhero or android leafing through entire books in a matter of seconds, pulling up hundreds of websites and clicking through in quick succession, eyes whizzing back and forth—effectively “uploading” information to the brain. Perhaps those who look forward to a new kind of digital, post-linear reading imagine that our brains will soon evolve to work more like that. This is fantasy. For the next many thousands of years—the timescale on which evolution does its slow work—we can reliably expect the human brain to have the same hard-wired limitations that it has today. One such limitation has to do with working (or short-term) memory.

It depends which researcher you ask, but all agree that there are biological bounds to how much information we can store in working memory before we begin to forget. We’re often happily oblivious to our own frailty in this regard. A recent study from the University of Utah showed that people who thought they were good at multitasking—in this case, solving math problems while also memorizing strings of random numbers—were actually worse at it than people who acknowledged their limitations. Likewise, when you click away from an article you’re reading online to reply to an email, that distraction alone may be enough to effectively flush whatever you’ve been reading out of your working memory—whether you want to admit it or not.

The consolidation of working memory into long-term memory is crucial to learning, but it’s a fragile process that can take hours. Carr compares it to “filling a bathtub with a thimble.” In studies, groups asked to memorize and retain a list of nonsensical vocabulary words are able to do so even if their memory-consolidation process is interrupted two hours later by being asked to memorize a second list. However, if they’re asked to memorize the second list immediately after memorizing the first list, they usually forget the first. The timing of the interruption is key. This mirrors a famous 19th-century study of boxers showing that head trauma tends to wipe out memories only from the minutes and hours immediately preceding the damaging blow to the head. The boxers’ brains were still consolidating these memories when the trauma occurred. The memories hadn’t had time to take root in the brain.

Considering the two studies together, we can conclude that bombarding oneself with bits of disparate information in quick succession—in other words, trying to read like a multitasking Superman—is, for ordinary mortals, the educational equivalent of repeatedly bashing one’s head against a wall. Nothing ever makes it into long-term memory.

Carr sees this dynamic setting off a digital-era negative feedback loop in which we cheat the potential of our human brains by treating them like computer hard drives. “As our use of the Web makes it harder for us to lock information into our biological memory,” he writes, “we’re forced to rely more and more on the Net’s capacious and easily searchable artificial memory, even if it makes us shallower thinkers.”

Linear reading, on the other hand, moves sequentially at a pace well timed to the consolidation of memory. Call it “slow” reading, to extend the Internet-as-McDonald’s analogy. It turns out that this extremely old technology is actually exquisitely well tuned to the way our brains acquire and store information.

Carr puts it best: “The Internet is an interruption system. It seizes our attention only to scramble it.”

We’ll never get back the hours we’ve lost pouring click-bait through the sieve of our working memories. But the good news is that we can change our habits. As Dillon has pointed out in criticism of one of Carr’s more inflammatory phrases, the Internet isn’t “rewiring our brains” in any permanent way. Just as the ill effects of fast food and a sedentary lifestyle can be countered by eating healthy food and exercising, bad reading habits (i.e., reading online) can be overcome by making time for linear reading.

According to Art Markman, a professor of psychology at UT-Austin and author of Smart Change: Five Tools to Create New and Sustainable Habits in Yourself and Others, developing good offline reading habits is even less challenging than other forms of personal discipline. “Once you get back into it, the reading experience is fun,” Markman said. “Exercising isn’t always. Eating right sometimes requires you not to do the thing that feels right in the short term. Reading does feel right. It’s just something we’ve gotten away from.”

When we habitually avoid reading tasks that last more than a few minutes or require deep concentration, we begin slowly to lose the skill, like a foreign language we cease to practice.

Markman emphasizes that the best way to re-establish good reading habits is simply to turn off all Internet-equipped devices, including smartphones, when it’s time to read. He also advises setting up a space at home especially for reading, seeking the indulgence of family, and joining a book club or finding some other social encouragement to read books.

Regarding social encouragement to read offline, there may be more good news on the way. As arguments forwarded by Dillon, Carr and others continue to seep into the popular consciousness, we’re beginning to feel the first twinges of social pressure to cultivate time away from the Internet. As with the rise of sustainable-food culture, this is a scenario in which peer- and class-based pressure can help us treat our minds and bodies better, to the benefit of all. It may be wishful thinking, but perhaps once again we’ll see a day when a living room without books, let alone a life without literature, is just as unsatisfying as a dinner party of McDonald’s takeout.

I know I’d welcome that scenario. I’ve personally committed to spending at least a few hours without Internet access every day, at least some of which I devote to reading. One day, hopefully, I’ll look back on my wasted hours of Web-skimming sort of like a dumb article I clicked on once, didn’t get much out of, and quickly clicked away from. Which is another way of saying: In the context of a long, meaningful and memorious life of reading, my detour into online reading has been a chapter well worth forgetting.

Michael Agresta, an Austin resident, has written for Slate, the Atlantic and the Wall Street Journal.

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Published at 8:00 am CST