Do computers ruin us for books?
When I was a teenager I read approximately a book a day. When I was a young adult, I read two or three books a week. But now that I’m middle-aged I seem to read in bits and pieces, perhaps two to four pages at a time, picking up the book and browsing lightly, only to put it down again. Magazines are read in the same haphazard way; I can’t think of an essay that I have completed in less than several sittings. Before now I blamed my failing readership on my busy lifestyle and parenthood, but some time ago I began to have sinister suspicions: could my hours-long use of the computer each day be contributing to the breakdown of my concentration?
I am a freelance writer and I work from home, using a computer. During the day I constantly check my email, check the news headlines online, check email again, work on my weekly article, scope out the headlines again. I don’t cruise the Internet for fun; but the fact remains that for the most part I’m a sedentary person who has to work for hours on a computer. I don’t see any way that this can fail to have some kind of impact on my brainwave patterns. I’m not really too busy to read books; but it appears that I’m simply unable to read them in the full-on concentrated mode that I experienced in my youth.
I remember the feeling of being so immersed in a book that I had no desire to swim to the surface and return to daily life. I remember becoming so involved with the lives of the characters in my books that I felt that I almost knew them. I remember being so passionately invested in a book that I could not stop telling all my friends they needed to read it. Each book was almost like a love affair, to be enjoyed and relished to the utmost. But where did that all go? Even when I’m on vacation or confined to bed while sick, I can’t seem to muster the ability to read with concentration for several hours a day.
By accident I came across Nicholas Carr’s book, “The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains” (which, ironically, I did not read in its entirety but only as a review in the New York Review of Books). His book began as an article for the Atlantic Monthly (http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2008/07/is-google-making-us-stupid/6868/). As he puts it: “Over the past few years I’ve had an uncomfortable sense that someone, or something, has been tinkering with my brain, remapping the neural circuitry, reprogramming the memory. My mind isn’t going—so far as I can tell—but it’s changing. I’m not thinking the way I used to think. I can feel it most strongly when I’m reading. Immersing myself in a book or a lengthy article used to be easy. My mind would get caught up in the narrative or the turns of the argument, and I’d spend hours strolling through long stretches of prose. That’s rarely the case anymore. Now my concentration often starts to drift after two or three pages. I get fidgety, lose the thread, begin looking for something else to do. I feel as if I’m always dragging my wayward brain back to the text. The deep reading that used to come naturally has become a struggle. [But] I think I know what’s going on. For more than a decade now, I’ve been spending a lot of time online.”
Sound familiar? I see only two conclusions to draw: (1) either our brains have indeed been altered by our computer usage; or (2) our middle-aged brains are simply aging and it has nothing to do with our computer use. The way to prove or disprove this empirically might be to examine middle-aged and older people who use the computer every day and compare their reading habits with those of their peers who do not use computers every day. I am not optimistic for those of us who use computers, however.