For thousands of years, human beings have acquired the information needed to interact with the physical environment and other people by means of direct experience. Most of the information was reached our brain, slowly, as a consequence of the observation of phenomena and situations with our own eyes. The brain was also fed by stories and information derived from the experiences lived by other people, who communicated verbally what they had seen with their eyes or listened to with their ears. The information was orally transmitted, with all the advantages and disadvantages this implied, and obviously, in a very limited and conditioned way, it could be easily modified and was subject to the degeneration of the message, typical of the word of mouth.
About 5,000 years ago, with the creation of writing and reading, our brain experienced a real revolution. In order to adapt to reading, the brain had to be reorganised, allowing the development of longer and even more complex arguments, along with many data which didn’t need to be totally memorised, and giving rise to much more reflective thoughts. Reading triggered a whole process of creative development. Imagination and researches by some people allowed others to keep on creating until many of the things we use today turned into reality.
However, this amazing change also found detractors and enemies. For instance, even Socrates himself, such an – outstanding figure – considered that writing would bring more problems than benefits. He believed that the dependence from written texts would produce negative changes in people’s mind. He defended that writing was threatening to transform us into less wise, less happy and less intellectually deep thinkers. Just imagine… Fortunately and after some time, the arguments advocated by Plato took over, who considered writing as an opportunity, even though it was only reserved to a privileged minority during the first centuries.
The second important change took place with the beginning of silent reading. For centuries, reading was only carried out by a few and always aloud, with the aim of transmitting. Around year 380, Saint Augustine is surprised to see Saint Ambrose reading without opening his mouth or pronouncing a single word… Silent reading brought for the reader a whole world of reflections, a wide variety of interpretations and self-awareness. It allowed the reader to stop, to internally discuss about the topic s/he was reading about, to re-read, etc.
The third change took place between the 12th and the 13th centuries, with the rise and the generalisation of the use of words and punctuation marks. Indeed, for centuries, manuscripts were formed by tedious chains of letters, without spaces separating words, full stops or commas. The reader had to make enormous efforts to interpret the content and sense of the chained letters he had just read.
The fourth change led to a true revolution, as well as to the popularisation of writing, reading and even culture and thought in all their forms. Towards the middle of the 15th century, the German blacksmith Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press. The rare and handcrafted books gave way to the edition and distribution of thousands of copies all around Europe. Barely-read works began to be available to the citizens of the time. Prices and editing times were highly reduced, and the demand for books soared. According to Michael Clapham’s estimations in “Printing”, during the fifty years following the invention of the printing press, the number of books that were edited was equal to the number of books that had been reproduced by European scribes during the previous thousand years. By the end of the 15th century, a printing press was already available in over 250 European cities, and over 12 million books were circulating… However, this wonderful invention also had its detractors. Many started to wonder if the fact of everyone having access information was a good thing… Not to mention when it came to information, contents or opinions that could not be shared by the prevailing power. As Joad Raymond points out in “The Invention of the Newspaper: English Newbooks”, the first official book censor in England stated that typography was providing more harm that benefits to Christianity. But, as we all know, the printing press not only continued printing books, but it also turned the Bible into the most famous book ever…
Finally, the fifth change –digital writing and reading on the internet– shall also be considered as a revolution. Web 2.0 has transformed people into information producers, and not only mere consumers. Blogs, social media, thematic webs, forums and many other sites are allowing every single human being with an Internet connexion to communicate anything to the rest of the world, making it accessible to almost 2.5 billion users. According to the data published by Science in 2011, currently humankind produces every 2 days the same amount of information created by our species for almost 5,000 years. That is to say, 5 Exabytes of information every 48 hours.
Nowadays, access to information is digital: less than 0.1% of the information currently generated is on paper. 99.9% of the information is only digitally available. Every minute, 2 million searches are made in Google. Therefore, the search engine is the main and omnipresent means used to search information by children, teenagers and adults.
As researchers and neuroscientists from all over the world point out, the way we acquire information influences the way we perceive and transmit it. The kind of mental activity we develop shapes our brain and our neurons’ distribution. We are lucky to have such a sensitive tool, with a wonderful characteristic known as NEUROPLASTICITY. The brain is able to modify itself. It is not static neither rigid. Neurons set new paths, implement new neuronal circuits and abandon obsolete ones. Some neurons are discarded, but many others join and strengthen the new paths. Recycling economy rules our brain.
In addition, the tool we use for reading and writing conditions us; whatever it is… Nietzsche stated that since he started writing with a typewriter, not only his prose but also his thoughts were conditioned. The move from writing on paper to using a typewriter implied a big change for him. He could not even imagine what the arrival of the cyber-text would represent…
IS IT DIFFERENT TO READ INFORMATION IN BOOKS FROM READING IT IN WEBSITES?
Yes, indeed. Many and varied studies reveal this. One of them has been carried out by Dr. Jakob Nielsen, Director of the Nielsen Norman Group he co-funded with Dr. Donald A. Norman (former Apple Computer research Vice-president). After an eye-tracking study, it concludes that Internet users do not carry out a linear reading, but that they “scan” the screen. Users do their reading following an “F-shaped pattern”. They read the first two lines, then scroll down the left side and focus on the centre. After that, they abandon linear reading again to keep scrolling down towards the bottom-left side. The same conclusions have been drawn by other institutions such as the Software Usability Research Laboratory in the Wichita State University.
According to the research studies by Jakob Nielsen, people actually read less than 20% of the content of a webpage. Besides, he concludes that many users dedicate up to 69% of their attention to the left side of the screen, and only 30% to the right side.
The University College of London, under the direction of Professor David Nicholas, carried out a survey amongst teenagers between 12 and 18 years of age and determined that teenagers need much less time that adults to find information on the Internet. They are six times faster than older people. However, at the same time, the study concludes that Internet reduces concentration skills, as well as teenagers’ ability to write and read long texts.
During two months, the Israeli software company ClikTale collected data concerning the behavior of a million Internet users. They concluded that in most countries Internet users only spend between 19 and 27 seconds in each site they visit. They never read the whole page.
Research by Ziming Liu, Library and Information Sciences Professor at the San José State University, points out that a screen-based reading behavior is arising, in which reading is carried out as a sort of random exploration, nor linear either fixed, and focused in the search of key words.
In 2009, Developmental Psychologist Patricia Greenfield, professor at UCLA University, revised over fifty studies on the effects of the media on people’s intelligence and learning skills. The conclusion is the following: the increasing use of the Net is weakening our skills for “deep processing”, which allows “conscious acquisition of knowledge, inductive analysis, critical thought, imagination and reflection”.
Actually, after having read so many articles and research works, it becomes easy to conclude that reading on the Internet is destabilizing our brains, to the extent of even considering the possibility of an involution. Nevertheless, I think we shall be much more objective and put every question in context before drawing any conclusions.
IS INTERNET READING COMPATIBLE WITH LINEAR BOOK READING?
This is, in my opinion, the key issue. As many of you, I practice what I consider to be two very different reading methods, depending on the circumstances. I read, or I “scan”, hundreds of web pages every day. Without this form of reading, so well developed by teenagers nowadays, we would need hours to decide if the information offered in a website matches what we are looking for or not. Certainly, with practice we can be able to dismiss content in just a few seconds. The “F-shaped” pattern for reading seems very logical to me. We read the headings and the very first lines to determine if we are interested, and then we scroll down the left margin, as it is there where every new paragraph starts after a full stop. But we don’t do it exclusively on the Internet! We also do it whenever we glance over a book from a shelf just to know if we’d like it or not, or when we flick through the pages of a magazine, or still when we read a newspaper.
The truth is that I have not given up reading books. And instead of “scanning” them, my reading is linear, reflective and in depth, just like when we read a book or an article we’re interested in (even if it is as long as this one). I sincerely believe that both reading methods can respond to different needs and they are both absolutely compatible and NECESSARY.
THE POSSIBILITY OF COMBINING TWO READING METHODS DOES NOT NECESSARILY MEAN IT IS HAPPENING IN PRACTICE…
In fact, here is the next question we should consider. Personally, as may be your case as well, I’ve spent the first 30 years of my life reading books, following a linear and reflective pattern. During that time, a series of structures and neuronal circuits have settled in our brains, and most of them still remain. I didn’t learn to read on the Internet, and I didn’t have to combine “traditional” and “digital” reading until very recently. The truth is we should not assume that children will adopt both reading methods without problems, or that they will be perfectly able to distinguish one method from the other. And we should not assume this because we know how our brain works…:
- Our brain is an innate saver. In fact, despite its small size it consumes 20% of all the energy used by our body. So part of its work consists on optimizing resources and being “sustainable”. If the brain can do something in a simpler way, with less effort, IT WILL DO IT. Reading always the same way is easier than code-switching and choosing between two different methods depending on the context. If a reading method is used much more frequently than the other one, the brain will reinforce the associated processes in other to make it easier and simpler to read that way. Therefore, that reading method will become consolidated.
- Let’s not fool ourselves, reading nicely designed websites or online content is much more appealing, especially for the youngest ones. The mix of colors, photographs, moving images, videos, banners, links to other websites, etc., satisfy our brain’s constant and innate curiosity. Many and very diverse stimuli can entertain the brain, making it enjoy every new impact, every new discovery, but not allowing it to finally focus and understand something in depth, leaving distractions aside.
I honestly believe that, as they lack years of experience in linear reflective reading, children are at risk of ending up adopting and consolidating a “scan” reading method, not allowing them to consider the contents in depth, and leading to a permanent need to swap between tasks in order to receive new stimuli – becoming therefore very prone to distractions.
And according to the last PISA report, Spanish children and teenagers reading comprehension skills should not worsen, as they are already quite bad.
However, we SHOULD NOT become the Socrates of our days, nor the censors mistrusting new inventions. “F-shaped” reading is necessary and fundamental to deal with the huge amount of information available on the Internet. It represents an adaptation to a new environment that we can’t and we shouldn’t miss. Furthermore, this skill should be trained. Children and teenagers are already carrying out this training. But today, more than ever, it is necessary to reinforce linear and reflective reading, as it allows us to REACH A DEEP UNDERSTANDING, to ASSIMILATE and to FIX information, data and concepts. This should also be trained; undoubtedly, now more than ever.
We shall force our brain to make efforts. It can do it (and actually loves doing it!). It is vital for children and teenagers to read whole books, to understand them in depth and to reflect about them with no distractions. There is more at stake than what we imagine. Right now, making children read should be a priority for parents and teachers. It must be a priority for the whole society.
– Jakob Nielsen, “F-Shaped Pattern for Reading Web Content”, Alterbox.
– Ziming Liu, “Reading Behavior in the Digital Environment”, Journal of Documentation, 61, no. 6. 2005.
“Puzzling Web Habits across the Globe”, Blog ClickTale, 31th July 2008.
– David Nicholas, “The Virtual Revolution – Homo Interneticus”.
– Patricia M. Greenfield, “Technology and Informal Education: What Is Taught, What Is Learned”, Science, 323, no. 5910” January 2009.