Wednesday, July 23, 2014

On Memory, the Internet, and reading comprehension … by gimleteye

Recently I've been thinking a lot about memory. I'm sensitized by family members in their 90s and each displaying memory deficits from dementia, Alzheimers, to the slippery slope of cognitive decline.

It's very sad and yes I worry about the road ahead, but I'm also troubled by the road I'm on.

On the way to writing this post, I went to search online for a New York Times OPED that had interested me; how reliance on the internet has diminished the ability of consumers to fully process what we are reading. I've noticed that when I read a newspaper online, my retention of information is qualitatively different from when I read a printed newspaper in my hands. It's not a scientific result, but it is a result I've reached after many years of both reading and hoping to earn readers' attention.

Before I could find what I was looking for in the Times, my attention was diverted by an interesting story on a public hearing about fish eggs and nuclear permitting on the Hudson River. When I couldn't find the OPED I meant to bring to your attention on my laptop, I reached into my backpack for my iPad and logged on to see if the OPED was in the history bar.

There I had a yoga schedule, a Sun Sentinel article on Jeb Bush's legacy (taking a huge hit!), a weather site (to rain or not to rain), a Miami Herald report, an article from the UK Guardian on climate change in Miami (drowning!), a coffee vendor website (have to order now), a friend's blog (have to read now), another NY Times OPED (not the one I was looking for), an article on restaurants in Paris, 40 Genius Travel Tips That Will Change Your Life Forever, and Trouble Shooting Your Cable TV Connection.

I never did find what I was looking for -- my memory was hazy, which doesn't help when entering search words -- , but when I find it I will share the news: comprehension skills have declined with our reliance on the internet.

That we are drowning in information is hardly news. We are all in a turbulent current where brains don't multi-task so much as substitute breadth of capacity for depth of understanding. And some evolutionary part of us believes that attention to lots of different pieces of information, as many as we can find, will make life safer.

Take this blog and reader comments, for example. We get the most comments from short posts. We know (as paid newspaper editors do, too) that readers' attention spans are foreshortened by so much freely available information from multiple sources. Blogs that cost nothing but a glance. It doesn't mean our readers aren't interested or don't fully appreciate our longer posts, or for that matter longer investigative reports in newspapers.

Who can absorb it all? And if we are not absorbing all the information we receive from the internet, and by absorbing becoming better humans, improving our condition, our health and welfare, and that of our family, friends, and communities; what is the point of it all?

(Here is the OPED I was looking for:


Anonymous said...

Comprehension, retention and intimate, personal involvement in the reading matter are all pluses for tactile paper reading matter. All the twitter feeds turn us into easily swayed, highly opinionated, surface learners.

Don't want to buy and then have to store the book? Check it out from the public library.

Anonymous said...

Only 1 comment so far this must not qualify as a short post.

Anonymous said...

Always too long. You need an editor.

Life sucks, there is no point. The internet ruined communication. We are back doing the morse code: texting.

Anonymous said...

Everything is fast now and must be broken down for quick comprehension. It has been difficult for me, but I am making the transition. People don't think in terms of details, they want the overview so they can go to something else. The problem is, most of the issues we deal with are complex issues, that don't lend themselves to a few sentences. At the same time we are confronted with massive amounts of information and limited time, and people have to decide where to invest their reading time. The topic and the first paragraph must be strong, otherwise you lose the readers.

Anonymous said...

Deepak Chopra says we are all taking it in and it spews out when necessary, I don't agree. How come whenever my cellphone is out of battery I cannot remember my parents' phone number ?

Purple library guy said...

This is a sloppy approach. It would seem to me that if the problem is that massive multi-tasking is bad for comprehension, that's what we should be saying. The internet doesn't force us to use massive multi-tasking, although it does enable it. This makes the internet itself dangerous, but not automatically a problem. Personally, I don't use it that way; I don't do twitter, I don't use Facebook, I stick largely to a few websites that have things I'm particularly interested in (such as Counterpunch, where I read this article) except when I'm looking for something, which I generally find pretty quickly. I doubt the simple act of reading something on a screen rather than paper makes a huge difference to comprehension or mental wiring.

Thus, more to the point would be to encourage people to use the internet carefully and not to imagine they can be effective at thinly-spread multitasking. I have seen other articles about studies indicating that internet-style multitasking works poorly in general--that even people who think they can work well on multiple tasks rapidly interrupting one another, can't. Spread your attention too widely and you have a problem.

Using the internet with some care is much more practicable than not using it at all. So if you say "Oh, the internet is bad for you!" the response is going to be minimal--people might feel worried but they're not going to stop using the internet. If you instead say "certain habits that are easy to get into on the internet, are bad for you" it's not only more accurate, but it's something people can potentially do something about.

Anonymous said...

It is not just Internet usage, generally, everyone wants the condensed version. In Washington DC, if you can't get in a page, hardly anyone will read it. On many jobs, extensive papers go unread. Casual reading on the Internet, in newspapers, magazines and the like, people qiuickly scan for interest, then focus on something that catches their eye. Most people have a routine for first morning viewing with sources they feel comfortable with. Serious reading of books, extensive offerings, major papers, happens mostly at night after the fast pace of the day is over.