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Books Science

Online Skim Reading Is Taking Over the Human Brain 224

Hugh Pickens DOT Com (2995471) writes "Michael S. Rosenwald reports in the Washington Post that, according to cognitive neuroscientists, humans seem to be developing digital brains with new circuits for skimming through the torrent of information online at the expense of traditional deep reading circuitry... Maryanne Wolf, one of the world's foremost experts on the study of reading, was startled last year to discover her brain was apparently adapting, too. After a day of scrolling through the Web and hundreds of e-mails, she sat down one evening to read Hermann Hesse's challenging novel The Glass Bead Game. 'I'm not kidding: I couldn't do it,' says Wolf. 'It was torture getting through the first page. I couldn't force myself to slow down so that I wasn't skimming, picking out key words, organizing my eye movements to generate the most information at the highest speed. I was so disgusted with myself.'

The brain was not designed for reading and there are no genes for reading like there are for language or vision. ... Before the Internet, the brain read mostly in linear ways — one page led to the next page, and so on. The Internet is different. With so much information, hyperlinked text, videos alongside words and interactivity everywhere, our brains form shortcuts to deal with it all — scanning, searching for key words, scrolling up and down quickly. This is nonlinear reading, and it has been documented in academic studies. ... Some researchers believe that for many people, this style of reading is beginning to invade our ability to deal with other mediums. 'We're spending so much time touching, pushing, linking, scrolling and jumping through text that when we sit down with a novel, your daily habits of jumping, clicking, linking is just ingrained in you,' says Andrew Dillon."
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Online Skim Reading Is Taking Over the Human Brain

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  • Efficiency (Score:0, Insightful)

    by Jenerick ( 717200 ) on Tuesday April 08, 2014 @03:06AM (#46691571)
    As a culture have improved our speed-reading skills? I don't see how this is a problem, especially as a student who can apply these concepts and skills to textbooks. Disclaimer: I skimmed this summary and TFA may address this.
  • by drolli ( 522659 ) on Tuesday April 08, 2014 @03:18AM (#46691629) Journal

    get over it.

    I am a fast reader (>400words per minute), and when i skim a screenful of information or code I exceed this significantly.

    There are some things which you need to understand:

    * Reading may be fast, but comprehending may be tricky. If a page of code contains a tricky algorithm, it can take a week

    * Classic literature (for which my speed drops below 200 word per minute) is not structured for being read quickly. If may be structured to model a thought process, or even a pattern of spoken language. Take your time to read it, and accept it.

    * Literature often has dialogues, or reflections of dialogues. keepign two viepoints necessarily disrupts your reading speed. Books which have a lot of decription of though processes or viewpoints of characters contain more information. The more brilliant of these books manage to refer indirectly to the processes and let you infer a large part of what is going on (e.g. "Midnights Chrildren"). Obviously the limiting factor is not reading, but understanding.

  • by linuxguy ( 98493 ) on Tuesday April 08, 2014 @03:21AM (#46691643) Homepage

    I have been doing this since usenet days. I got hooked to newsgroups early. I was about 18 years old and this was 1990. I have not been able to read ordinary books since then. I can read technical books just fine. The kind that pack a lot of information. I have tried several times, but have utterly failed to read fiction. Something inside me tells me that I am wasting my time. Not that I don't waste time. I do that a lot. I watch plenty of movies, TV, hang out with friends and family etc. etc. and I "skim the Internet" a tonne. I have a good job, wife and two kids. It is not entirely clear to me how this "problem" is hurting me.

  • Re:Efficiency (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Chrisq ( 894406 ) on Tuesday April 08, 2014 @03:22AM (#46691647)

    As a culture have improved our speed-reading skills? I don't see how this is a problem, especially as a student who can apply these concepts and skills to textbooks. Disclaimer: I skimmed this summary and TFA may address this.

    The summary makes it clear that the 'problem' is that the improved skim reading may come at the expense of in-depth reading.

  • Designed? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by wonkey_monkey ( 2592601 ) on Tuesday April 08, 2014 @03:47AM (#46691733) Homepage

    The brain was not designed for reading

    It wasn't designed for anything.

    And who's to say the invention of writing hasn't already had some impact on human evolution? I know it hasn't been long in the grand scheme of things, but moths didn't take long to adapt to the industrial revolution.

    there are no genes for reading like there are for language or vision

    Well, there are genes which have an impact on language development if faulty or missing, but are they necessarily "genes for language"?

  • by rolfwind ( 528248 ) on Tuesday April 08, 2014 @03:51AM (#46691747)

    I am a fast reader (>400words per minute), and when i skim a screenful of information or code I exceed this significantly.

    I'm always skeptical of people clamining superhigh reading speeds. I mean, yeah I can skim easy text to and just "float" above it, but what about when comprehension and understanding are required; like when you read a biology or math text and other such material you haven't encountered before? What good does reading speed help there if it goes in one eye and out the other, so to speak??

  • by ( 581096 ) on Tuesday April 08, 2014 @04:12AM (#46691829)
    It depends on the book. I for one started reading Arthur C Clarke's Rama series, and I couldn't put it down.
  • Re:Designed? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by kruach aum ( 1934852 ) on Tuesday April 08, 2014 @04:16AM (#46691837)

    Moths also had a much harsher selection pressure. Maybe we would see similar results if we killed anyone over the age of 10 who couldn't read at a 12th grade level.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday April 08, 2014 @04:18AM (#46691849)
    I have a very similar thing. I can read a technical book all day long and not get bored or annoyed. With a fiction books it is different, I just feel I'm wasting my time and I can't understand people who go through many books a week. I've been using the Internet since I was very young and have always read a lot online. I remember in school I could never get into fiction and would always do my book reports on factual books and loan factual books from the library. I don't feel like I'm being hurt either, my life is satisfying and I have everything I need.
  • by DNS-and-BIND ( 461968 ) on Tuesday April 08, 2014 @04:36AM (#46691915) Homepage

    It's taking over the brains of those who participate 24/7 in, for lack of a better word, might be called the Twittersphere. I'm not condemning Twitter in general, but the entire weltanschauung of the situation that people like Maryanne Wolfe live in. Anyone who doesn't exist in this false world (i.e. most of humanity) doesn't have this experience at all. They're able to read deep texts, and you bet your ass they'll be ready to supplant these feeble minds in the future.

    The really scary part is that these Twitter minds lack the ability to see outside themselves. If it happens to me, then it happens to all of humanity. After all, all the people I know are in the Twittersphere, and that's the whole world...or at least the world worth knowing. Because if Maryanne Wolfe can't do it, that means the human brain is changing. Sad...but then again I find myself understanding why civilizations that have everything fall. It comes from taking it all for granted and neglecting the first principles that got us realizing the world has an independent existence outside of you and your little buddies.

  • by Misagon ( 1135 ) on Tuesday April 08, 2014 @05:07AM (#46692021)

    I was surprised when I was a kid back 25 years ago, that my dad could skim through text very fast.
    He worked as a journalist, and as such he was used to skimming through a lot of text to find the good bits that he could use as leads and sources for his articles.

    The difference to the Internet today, is just that more people are exposed to larger amounts of many different types of text, just like "text-workers" like my dad was back then.

  • Re:Ltetres odrer (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Dan East ( 318230 ) on Tuesday April 08, 2014 @07:45AM (#46692495) Journal

    I wrote a script to do that: []

    Thing is, once you start throwing lots of more robust text in there (excerpt from a book, etc), it becomes very apparent that it really only works with simple, common words. Once you start using proper nouns and more diverse vocabulary, it becomes very difficult to read the scrambled text. Also, the way the words are scrambled makes a big difference too. I ran your text through my scrambler a few times, and some of the results were harder to read than others.

    Here's the summary scrambled, and there are parts that can be read pretty easily, but then there are words that simply can't be read "automatically" and you have to sit and think about them.

    Meiahcl S. Rlwosnead rtoreps in the Wnasitgohn Psot taht, adrnioccg to covniitge ntesenucoiirtss, haumns seem to be dopnvileeg daigtil binras wtih new crtiuics for simnkimg torhguh the trneort of irfianoomtn oinlne at the eespnxe of taadinrtiol deep ridneag ctucirriy... Mraaynne Wlof, one of the wlrod's fsmoroet exptres on the stduy of rnadieg, was stretlad last yaer to divseocr her bairn was aertpnalpy antiadpg, too. After a day of srincollg tghoruh the Web and hdedruns of e-malis, she sat dwon one enenvig to raed Hearmnn Hsese's ciannlhgleg nvoel The Galss Baed Gmae. 'I'm not kniddig: I cdluon't do it,' syas Wlof. 'It was troture getitng touhgrh the fisrt page. I cdouln't fcroe msyelf to solw down so taht I wsan't siknmmig, pciinkg out key wdors, ognranizig my eye moetvnems to geantere the most ifianotromn at the hsiehgt seped. I was so digsutsed wtih mylesf.'

    The bairn was not dseengid for riaendg and trhee are no geens for radenig lkie three are for lauaggne or vioisn. ... Bfeore the Irntneet, the barin raed mtlosy in leianr wyas — one pgae led to the nxet pgae, and so on. The Inntreet is deneiffrt. With so mcuh iorfainomtn, hpyernilked txet, vedois asldgonie wdors and ireittntavciy eewvhrerye, our branis form suothcrts to dael wtih it all — snnicang, sinhcaerg for key wdros, srlclnoig up and down qilkcuy. Tihs is naneoilnr rnieadg, and it has been dmteucnoed in amcadiec sduetis. ... Some rseahrcrees bilveee taht for mnay polepe, tihs sytle of rneaidg is bnngiieng to idnave our abiltiy to dael wtih otehr mdeuims. 'We're seinpndg so mcuh tmie tincohug, psuinhg, liinnkg, sinlolcrg and junipmg toughrh txet taht wehn we sit dwon wtih a nveol, yuor daliy hbatis of jpmuing, ccilnikg, lniikng is jsut iareingnd in you,' syas Anerdw Dloiln."

  • Re:Meh (Score:3, Insightful)

    by The Grim Reefer ( 1162755 ) on Tuesday April 08, 2014 @08:18AM (#46692655)

    Will Hollywood react and install POS scanners on every theater door so patrons can "swipe" to see the next 3-minute micro-movie?

    Hollywood has been reacting for years. Just look at a movie from 50 years ago compared to today. Lawrence of Arabia was considered the greatest action movie made. Today it would be a drama at best. Most movie goers want an hour and a half to two hours of explosions, choreographed kung-fu dance fights, and physics defying car/plane/spaceship chases. There's a reason Michael Bay movies do so well. Not that there's anything wrong with that. I enjoy the occasional explosion-fest too. Just look at the original Matrix movie. They spoon fed what the Matrix was to the audience, and there are still people today who don't know what it was supposed to be about.

    Will they even bother selling popcorn and soda?

    As long as movie theaters are in business, yes. That's where they make their money after the studios get done shaking them down.

    Will Stephen King give up on novels and start writing really scary comic books 12 times a year?

    We can only hope.

    When everything in life warrants no more than 30 seconds of peoples precious time, good luck finding value or reward in anything you do. Even something fun.

    Congratulations, you are starting to get the same type of mindset your grandparents have/had. Now get in front of a mirror and start working on your "get off my lawn" face. ;-)

  • by asylumx ( 881307 ) on Tuesday April 08, 2014 @08:41AM (#46692759)
    Hate to say it, but if you're going to post about how great you are, you should expect people to pick you apart on any internet forum, including Slashdot.

Heuristics are bug ridden by definition. If they didn't have bugs, then they'd be algorithms.