Have you ever found yourself staring at a computer screen not being able to remember what happened 5 minutes ago? It could be the over-consumption of digital information, scientists say.
An average person consumes approximately 34 gigabytes of digital information everyday. That’s equivalent to around 100,000 words (or a whole book), according to the Global Information Industry Center at the University of California, San Diego.
As neuroscience research indicates, learning to read created a new circuit in the human brain more than 6,000 years ago. That circuit evolved from a very simple mechanism of decoding information (e.g. establishing the number of animals in a field), to the present ‘reading brain’.
Human babies are born with a natural capacity to learn to walk and talk, but not with a natural understanding of written language, explains neuroscientist Maryanne Wolf. You don't learn to read once, and maintain the ability unchanged over a lifetime. Keeping the reading circuits in your brain working well requires regular exercise. Use it or lose it - this is true of reading as well as muscle tone.
Most people are reading more than ever before, but the problem is, the way that people are reading has also changed. Skim reading has become the new normal.
We live in a world of digital information overload, constantly surrounded by screens feeding the brain with information, which it cannot properly process. People may be reading a novel’s worth of words during a day, but many no longer pick up an actual book because they feel too consumed by digital texts.
Neuroscientists say that lack of what they define as “deep thought” - which is often achieved when reading a physical book, is changing our brains.
Unlike reading in a book, or even a magazine or newspaper, reading on a screen often involves consuming short snippets of information in quick succession, usually by skimming over words, or clicking from one page to another. When the brain skims texts, there is no time to grasp complexity, think ‘deeply’ about the information or gauge proper perspective on a particular point of view.
Some neuroscientists say skimming has become the new normal way of reading, something humans have adapted to as a way of dealing with the enormous volumes of information we are presented with every day.
As a result, our reading brain is becoming wired more for speed and less for processes like comprehension, understanding and committing information to our long-term memories.With a lack of focused attention or “deep thought” when reading, it is making it increasingly difficult for the brain to perform deep, critical, comprehensive thinking.
In a research study on brain image recognition, led by Michigan State University professor Natalie Phillips, they found that the brain was less active when someone was engaged in ‘casual’ or ‘skim’ reading, as opposed to attentive or deep reading. While concentration during reading engages our ability to think critically and reflectively, by consuming more and more words by skimming and without paying proper attention, nothing can be properly processed by the brain.
Most screens, e-readers, smartphones and tablets interfere with intuitive navigation of a text - essentially they encourage skimming or rushed reading. Someone reading a digital text might scroll through a seamless stream of words, tap forward one page at a time or use the search function to immediately locate a specific word or phrase - this usually takes everything out of context.
Seemingly, it’s all words and no meaning when it comes to consumption of vast quantities of digital information.
The tendency to read a screen more superficially than a book has been demonstrated in a study by information science expert Ziming Liu, who investigated eye movement during digital reading.
His research showed that when people consume words on a screen, they tend to read diagonally or vertically to help quickly locate words in a bid to get a general ‘gist’ of the text. If the reader already has an idea of the context of the subject, the words may not actually be read.
Our functional memory is being affected by this kind of information consumption: the average capacity of the functional memory of people reading on screens is increasingly reduced.
In other words, we read more but remember less, because we are actually reading superficially, rarely reading to learn or to deeply immerse in a text.