The Backlash of Brevity
By Molly Murfee
I once had a magazine editor tell me he wanted an article brief enough to read on the toilet.
My deep guttural response was - “gross” - on a variety of levels.
Men’s apparent obsession with their potty practices aside, my reaction was one of horror of what we have done to our reading habits to reduce the intake of our literature – that which has the capacity to shape our minds and mold our culture - to one of expulsion, excrement and a stagnancy of intellectual maturity that leaves us stuck in the fourth grade.
There are many reasons our minds have been diminished to such, and most of them have to do with the internet.
The cell phone became available to the public in 1984 (eerily appropriate). The World Wide Web was invented in 1990. Alongside it, the personal home computer, born in 1977, was quickly becoming more and more affordable and therefore ubiquitous. By 2007 we had the iPhone and the world of the web, the computer and the phone were married into a 24-7 hand-held “connection” device.
Our computers foster distraction by allowing us to do several things at once. At any given moment we have multiple tabs open on our browser – one for research, one for shopping, one for social media, one for email, one for music.
With this kind of multi-tasking capacity, we’re expected to constantly perform at maximum speed, maximum output and maximum efficiency, despite a perpetual barrage of blinking ads yanking us off track elsewhere. We resort to skimming for information instead of reading deeply, demanding brevity so we can quickly leap on to the next thing, without full comprehension of the topic at hand before moving on.
This ceaseless jumping around from information bit to information bit has a profound effect on the ways our brains, and therefore culture, wire themselves. The relentless distractive atmosphere hobbles us - from an inability to concentrate, to an incapacity to connect with others. We skip superficially along the surface, our deeper and more involved critical, complex and analytical thinking left limp and diminished.
Dr. Glen Wilson of the London Institute of Psychiatry found, in fact, that the persistent interruptions and distractions so omnipresent in our digitally driven world have the ability to drop our IQ by 10%.
Carolyn Gregoir interviewed Nicholas Carr, author of The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, for her Huffington Post article “The Internet May Be Changing Your Brain in Ways You’ve Never Imagined.” There, Carr states that the internet makes us “less able to form long term memories, undermines the attentiveness that leads to deep connections with other people, and makes us less able to feel empathy and deep emotions.”
Additionally we lose the ability to control our minds and what we think about. He refers to a researcher from Stanford that found “the more you acclimate yourself to the technology and constant flow of information that comes from it, it seems that you become less able to figure out what’s important to focus on. Instead, your mind gets attracted just to what’s new rather than what’s important.”
“What makes me more pessimistic,” he continues, “Is that we’re kind of building our personalities and our entire societies around this new set of norms and expectations that says you need to be constantly connected.”
At the other end of the distracted reading spectrum, Maryanne Wolfe (author of Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain, and professor at Tufts University and UCLA) asserts “deep reading is indistinguishable from deep thinking,” elucidating that we are not only what we read, but how we read.
In his landmark article “Is Google Making Us Stupid” published in The Atlantic, Carr paraphrases Wolfe’s sentiments by saying “In the quiet spaces of the mind opened up by the sustained, undistracted reading of a book, or by any other act of contemplation, for that matter, we make our own associations, draw our own inferences and analogies, foster our own ideas.”
Similarly, Robert Waxler and Maureen Hall in Transforming Literacy: Changing Lives Through Reading & Writing write “Deep reading provides a way of discovering how we are all connected to the world and to our own evolving stories. Reading deeply we find our own plots and stories unfolding through the language and voice of others.”
I feel our inability to concentrate on any given item for longer than a few paragraphs lends itself to all sorts of inadequacies and subsequent repercussions. Constantly moving on to the next new thing we are incapable of sitting with “unpleasantries” such as climate change. Our inability to pay sustained attention doesn’t allow us to delve into its complexities, or create the time to allow the depth of caring. We can’t maintain an undistracted conversation with disparate parties long enough to employ empathy and explore solutions.
Neuroscientists tell us that even as adults our brains are extremely elastic. Everything we do impacts it – forging synapses where none were before. Our modern world is fraught with humanitarian, environmental and social problems – climate change is only one of many. It seems we would do better to foster those skills of empathy and critical thinking to tackle them. We have a choice of what to put in our brains and how. We can fire the synapses that allow us to think deeper, with more complexity. One simple piece of the solution is to change our habits to include reading that demands longer periods of concentration.
Because if we don’t, it might not just be the quality of our literature that goes down the toilet.