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Do computers ruin us for books?

August 6, 2011

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.

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3 Comments
  1. Carr might have a point, but I think it also depends on the generation. Being a millennial who has grown up with computers, I haven’t noticed a difference in being able to sit down a read a book and giving my full concentration to it for hours. Like you, I have to read books in bits and pieces, but that’s 100 percent due to my life being a crazy whirlwind of activity. My life is much, much busier than it was when I was a teen and that is 100 percent of my problem.

  2. I got up to p. 35 in Carr’s book a year ago and keep promising myself I’ll get back to it. I just prefer to read fiction and can zoom through that, up to a book a day if I have the time. To accurately gauge the long-term impact of computers on reading, I think you’d need a longitudinal study of kids that examines their screen time and reading habits. Do kids who use the computer less have different reading habits than kids who use the computer more? Then keep coming back to those individuals as they age and see what’s going on with screen time vs. reading habits. It may well turn out that aging has more of an impact on reading than computer usage; nonetheless, Carr’s hypothesis is quite engaging and has a lot of anecdotal support.

  3. Gini P. permalink

    Actually, I think it’s already been established that book reading is on the decline with the rise of computer usage. Kind of like the very real decline of story-telling with the rise of the printed word centuries ago. These type of dramatic changes in society do in fact change the neural pathways of our individual brains, and that is merely an adaptation on our part.

    I tend to see extreme multi-tasking, or what most of us refer to as “being busy” , as the real culprit behind attention deficit while reading, because it takes a “still” mind to find that beautiful zone of absorption that a well written book might induce! A mind that flits from website to website might need a bit of intentional calming (such as breathing exercises or meditation) when switching to book reading. What do you think?

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