Quanta of thought, attention span, ants… and meteorologists

This past week, Michael Rosenwald wrote a thoughtful piece for the Washington Post entitled Serious reading takes a hit from online scanning and skimming, researchers say. Unsurprisingly, the piece itself is worth “serious reading,” as in:

in its entirety…in one sitting… and taking time for reflection about extended, complex sets of interrelated ideas and images as we go along.


But the article’s point is that in the 21st-century, you and I may not be so adept at that[1].  Here are some excerpts:

Claire Handscombe has a commitment problem online. Like a lot of Web surfers, she clicks on links posted on social networks, reads a few sentences, looks for exciting words, and then grows restless, scampering off to the next page she probably won’t commit to.

“I give it a few seconds — not even minutes — and then I’m moving again,” says Handscombe, a 35-year-old graduate student in creative writing at American University.

But it’s not just online anymore. She finds herself behaving the same way with a novel.

“It’s like your eyes are passing over the words but you’re not taking in what they say,” she confessed. “When I realize what’s happening, I have to go back and read again and again.”

Mr. Rosenwald goes on to hint at the science behind this 21st-century reality:

To cognitive neuroscientists, Handscombe’s experience is the subject of great fascination and growing alarm. Humans, they warn, seem to be developing digital brains with new circuits for skimming through the torrent of information online. This alternative way of reading is competing with traditional deep reading circuitry developed over several millennia…

Researchers are working to get a clearer sense of the differences between online and print reading — comprehension, for starters, seems better with paper — and are grappling with what these differences could mean not only for enjoying the latest Pat Conroy novel but for understanding difficult material at work and school. There is concern that young children’s affinity and often mastery of their parents’ devices could stunt the development of deep reading skills…

The brain was not designed for reading. There are no genes for reading like there are for language or vision. But spurred by the emergence of Egyptian hieroglyphics, the Phoenician alphabet, Chinese paper and, finally, the Gutenberg press, the brain has adapted to read.

Before the Internet, the brain read mostly in linear ways — one page led to the next page, and so on. Sure, there might be pictures mixed in with the text, but there didn’t tend to be many distractions. Reading in print even gave us a remarkable ability to remember where key information was in a book simply by the layout, researchers said. We’d know a protagonist died on the page with the two long paragraphs after the page with all that dialogue…

Get the idea? Our brains come hardwired for certain essential functions like controlling breathing, heartbeat, etc. But much of the brain function that makes us human is more like software that the brain builds up in response to what it’s asked to do. How we read… whether deeply or distractedly… is initially a choice, and then as our brain wires itself up to suit our preferences, becomes a habit and then a constraint. So, for example, should we choose to put in 10,000 hours surfing and engaging on the internet[2] (as most readers of this blog do every few years), we start to think in internet-friendly quanta of thought versus the big topics tackled by, say, Tolstoy’s War and Peace or Darwin’s Origin of Species. Instead of tracking big ideas developed by others, we’re synthesizing entirely different themes by concatenating quanta or bits of information from a diverse array of sources. We’re doing this not just at work, but also in our recreation. We’re doing this in our relationships, even with those closest to us[3].

Neuroscientists see this on a much broader canvas than reading per se – over the whole of human learning, and especially, as Mr. Rosenwald noted, in children. (Google how to make your kids smarter and explore the offerings there if you want to see more.)

Just decades ago, the nature of so-called knowledge work was that it demanded both kinds of thinking – that stemming from deep reading and from the ability to draw together diverse threads of thought and practice from a range of disciplines. Today, however, the nature of society’s problems are so complex and demanding that even the most highly-developed and smartest professionals can do little more than struggle with disconnected bits and pieces of larger problems. This is true of environmental problems such as climate change. It’s also true of immigration policy; healthcare; job creation; education; farming; and much, much more. To develop societal solutions, we’re increasingly forced to operate more like ants or bees, relying on swarm intelligence, than as we once did, with long solo performances of creative imagination and thought. In LOTRW-the-blog, this is a recurrent theme. And in the LOTRW-the-book, there’s the suggestion that meteorologists, in their approach to weather prediction and its dissemination, come closer than many professional communities to harnessing the fullest power of this approach for meeting big societal problems: earth as a resource, a victim, and a threat.

Such approaches to our pressing societal challenges offer big opportunities. But they also pose substantial risks. Here are two – both hinted at in LOTRW-the-book:

First, swarm intelligence relies on community trust, cooperation, individual responsibility and other virtues that are hardwired into our antlike or apian friends thanks to tens of millions of years of evolution and natural selection, but sometimes appear lacking in our species. We evolved a different way. Second, swarm intelligence is incapable of seeing its way clear over the long haul except insomuch as that “long-term vision” has been incorporated into the emergent consequences of the swarm decisions by the same evolutionary process. In either case, we don’t have the luxury of such time spans to re-jigger things. We’ll have to use our intelligence and some kind of moral compass to reach the same end.

As we work out these larger, more existential problems, it behooves us to make the most of both deep reading and thought on the one hand, and internet surfing  and social networking on the other. As Mr. Rosenwald observes:

Researchers say that the differences between text and screen reading should be studied more thoroughly and that the differences should be dealt with in education, particularly with school-aged children. There are advantages to both ways of reading. There is potential for a bi-literate brain.

[2] Which works out to about 5 years at office in front of the computer. [This is the figure much discussed by Malcolm Gladwell (in his 2008 best-seller, Outliers: the story of success) as the amount of practice needed to master successfully a specific task – and, truth be told, much criticized by some]

[3]Though we might be separated geographically from those closest to us emotionally, we’re in intermittent, momentary contact with them through texting, tweeting, and other messaging. Ironically, when we’re actually in the same room with them we often find ourselves tugged apart by texts, e-mails and more from others who are physically remote.


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