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Your Brain on Pixels

By:Tracy Pell on:November 12, 2014
Your Brain on Pixels

Not too long ago my worst nightmare happened. I left my phone at home. I had two choices. Go back and get the phone and be late or be on time and spend the day without my phone. I could have called my boyfriend when I got to the office and asked him to bring it to me, but you and I both know that was not possible. Why? I don’t actually know his number! This modern problem, not knowing key bits of information like phone numbers is emblematic of how society has changed its approach to information. A recent blog post by Annie Murphy Paul talks about Organic-memory (our brains!) and Electronic-memory (the internet, the cloud etc) and how these two types of memory have huge implications for learning and knowing. Seth Godin says it best in his TEDxYouth talk when he said “…

There is zero value in memorizing anything ever again. Anything that is worth memorizing is worth looking up.” .

Our basic ability to memorize, the structures of our brains that allowed our ancestors to memorize entire epic poems and the entire history of their people are still there for us today. Yet we don’t even try to memorize a simple seven digit number. Its not worth the brain power… or is it? Does it matter what format you read in? Is printed-paper inherently better than pixels on a screen? The answer is actually a resounding… It depends.

In her awesome book on the reading brain “Proust and the Squid” , Maryanne Wolf walks us through the process by which humans invented (and reinvented) writing and reading over the course of 5000 years. Using parts of our brain intended for much more basic tasks, like object identification, we systematically reroute and rewire our brains from infancy.  We form increasingly complex circuits for speed and automation that take us from early decoding to fluent reading. Every single human builds this brain when they learn to read. 

Educators, brain scientists, philosophers and book nerds all worry that we are losing something special when diminish the time we spend reading. They are concerned that we are in fact wiring our brains for the worse. These folks are not the first people to be concerned that new technology will change humanity for the worse. Socrates thought that reading and writing would lead to a society that did not KNOW anything. For him words on a page were dead. He believed that it also allowed a certain level unwarranted arrogance that can only come from acquiring surface knowledge that has not been examined and questioned. Ironic how similar this concern is to the concerns we have today about the flood of unchecked information the Internet provides.

In the last few decades we have begun to change the devices that we use to read and write. We type our notes on laptops rather than write them by hand. We read on our phones and tablets. We read in ever-shorter chunks of time and attention. As we do this we are also wiring our brains to process information differently. What this means for us as a society and you and me as individuals is not yet clear. Study after study gives us conflicting information. Anecdotally many adults are starting to realize they can no longer sit and read a book with ease, but instead fight distraction and lack of focus. There is some research that indicates that studying on digital devices deposits information in our working memory, leaving surface knowledge that fades quickly. Critics of these studies say the devices and the lack of age diversity in the groups skews the results. The back and forth on the validity of these studies can be extremely confusing, especially when you are trying to determine what kinds of systems to build for optimal learning.

There are a few spots of clarity though:

  • The brain and body connection are critical in learning. We use all our senses when we are reading and learning. Movements (like turning pages) sensory cues (like the size of the book, place on page and pages remaining) matter. They help us retain and access information later.
  • There are differences between remembering and knowing. Our brains need time to absorb content, decode it, and then know it.

With that in mind it is safe to say that the answer to the paper to pixels question is BOTH. There is no turning back. We ARE rewiring our brains to absorb ever-greater amounts of information quickly. We must give our brains the opportunity to create new systems to deal with these new forms of reading and learning. At the same time we cannot abandon long form reading and the introspection it allows. We must continue to sit and read on paper and write by hand. Just like our bodies need to rest in order to get stronger we must also allow information to percolate in our brains to make new leaps of knowing beyond the words on the page.

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