Deep Reading, Deep Writing

Neuroscientists have discovered that reading web pages, as opposed to a book, is changing the way our brains are wired.  We’re losing the ability to do what is called “deep reading”.

I came across this very interesting article, on my Facebook timeline:

The findings are remarkable, though intuitively obvious.

The idea, in the article, is that web pages and even reading a book on a screen, encourage your gaze to dart around the page, looking at (or for) more stimulating things to notice and read.  We read in a non-linear way, when reading on a screen, skimming rather than following the written narrative in a deep, linear way.

On a screen, we read distractedly.  The very nature of web surfing, hyperlinking and the way that pages are laid out and designed for limited screen real estate all favour this less in-depth way of taking in information.  We see the gestalt very quickly, but we’ve become blind to subtle writing and nuanced arguments.

Because much of the web is advertising-supported, of course, the problem is exacerbated.  When we read, there are interruptions deliberately inserted in our way, disturbing concentration and derailing your train of thought.  Immersion is thwarted by the need to sell you something.  In short, comprehension is sacrificed for commerce.

If you adapt to this mode of reading, as many people have, it’s true that you can absorb a lot of information quickly, though superficially, but you lose the ability to deeply understand and follow an argument written carefully, in the old style, as if for the printed page.  When you immerse yourself in a novel, you take the information in completely differently to when you read the same work on a screen.

The written word, when read on paper, has the power to transport you to a different universe, constructed, as you read, in your imagination and existing in your mind for the duration of your span of concentration.  As far as we know, it’s the only means we have of effective time travel, too.  Reading a novel set in a past time, which is written vividly, utterly convinces us that we are really in that place and time.  Words written centuries ago, when read deeply, permit us to feel like we are conversing directly with the long dead author.  When your concentration flips around from one part of the screen to another, however, that mental model simply never has time to form with any power or lucidity and its coherence is disrupted by the competing narratives of the many on-screen distractions.

We aren’t able, it seems, to place ourselves in different imaginary universes, all of which are different, at the same time.  There’s too much cognitive dissonance.  Rather, we are able to, but we sacrifice resolution and definition to do so.  When an imaginary world, constructed in your mind in response to the words you are reading, lacks fidelity or resemblance to any real world, the illusion is broken and we cannot virtually inhabit that intellectual construct.  It loses all credibility and is, therefore, no longer interesting to dwell within, even momentarily.

If we lose that most preciously acquired deep reading skill, honed after years of reading books, because screen reading offers too much alternative stimulation, then we’ll be unable to respond to writers that write deeply.  A narrative is almost purely linear, in form and authors of fiction or complex non-fiction require that you stay with the narrative, or you become lost and the thread of their argument or story arc is broken and their ultimate point, not made.  That would be a tragic loss.

I write deeply.  That has been the raison d’être for this blog, almost from the very start.  You are not supposed to skim it.  You are supposed to read it in depth (though I am certain most people do not).  This is the reason why I tend to write fewer posts that are bullet-pointed lists, for instant consumption, or rely on headings to break the subject matter up into things you can choose to ignore.  Instead, I demand your attention, so that you get to the end with a deep understanding of what I was trying to say.  I choose my vocabulary very carefully and deliberately, to also appeal to this depth of comprehension.  I use long words because they are nuanced and convey deep subtleties.  I don’t think we want to lose the ability to read deeply.  I’m also fairly sure that I should be publishing this work in printed form.  Placing it on a screen, as its native publishing environment, handicaps it from the outset.

Neuroscience warns and counsels us to consider cultivating both forms of reading.  By all means develop the ability to comprehend the big picture quickly, skimming to establish the anchors instantly and taking in vast amounts of information, of differing character, rapidly.  In so doing, however, don’t allow the ability to concentrate deeply and follow a piece of writing carefully, without becoming distracted, to atrophy.  It’s too great a loss.  How?  Keep reading books, printed on paper.  Make the time for them.  Schedule an hour a day, when it’s the most important, sacrosanct and uninterruptible thing.  Retain the skill, if you previously had it, or develop it on purpose, if you didn’t.

Intriguingly, being conscious of the two different reading modes can allow you to focus on one or the other, irrespective of the physical format that delivers the page to your eyes.  You can, I think, choose to read deeply and linearly simply by being disciplined about blocking out the distractions deliberately.  Insist to yourself that you won’t stray and that you will immerse yourself fully, surrendering your entire focus to the narrative you wish to read and comprehend deeply.  I don’t know for sure, but my hunch is that you can do it, if you try.  It helps to be cognisant of the fact that screens are purpose-built to flip you into the more superficial mode of taking in a blizzard of information.  We skim read, after all, simply to cope with attention overload.

Deep writers have to provide compelling reasons for their readers to read on.  Writing with clarity and structure is a requirement, not an option.  Boring a reader is the ultimate sin, in a world where attention is so scarce and competed for so fiercely.  Also, say something worth saying.

Now that you’ve read to the end of this piece (hopefully), the best advice I can give you is to go and read an actual, physical book.  You know it makes sense.


About tropicaltheartist

You can find out more about me here: There aren’t many people that exist in that conjunction of art, design, science and engineering, but this is where I live. I am an artist, a musician, a designer, a creator, a scientist, a technologist, an innovator and an engineer and I have a genuine, deep passion for each field. Most importantly, I am able to see the connections and similarities between each field of intellectual endeavour and apply the lessons I learn in one discipline to my other disciplines. To me, they are all part of the same continuum of creativity. I write about what I know, through my blogs, in the hope that something I write will resonate with a reader and help them enjoy their own creative life more fully. I am, in summary, a highly creative individual, but with the ability to get things done efficiently. Not all of these skills are valued by the world at large, but I am who I am and this is me. The opinions stated here are my own and not necessarily the opinion or position of my employer.
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5 Responses to Deep Reading, Deep Writing

  1. HAH! I KNEW IT! Actual books ARE BETTER! As a long-term, long-time, lifelong aficionado of the written word and books in general, I find myself strangely vindicated. I’ve been to far too many people’s homes in recent years where I was immediately shocked by the visible absence of books – now all contained in digital format on various electronic devices and praised as minimalism. No thank you! While I fully acknowledge and admit the practicality of digital reading for its portability, nothing and no one will ever convince me, personally, to reject the printed version in its favor.

    • I love books and have a lot of books, but I have to say that I find it faster to read, with better comprehension, when I read books on my Kindle paper white. I think the main thing is the mind set you are in, while reading. I find myself skim reading on a web browser, for sure.

  2. Thank you so much for this post. It is what I try to do – read deeply. I do actually read on my mobile too but I’m quite disciplined with it. I am not, as you mention in the blog though, able to read a novel on my mac air. I recently bought a new iPhone which ridiculously has less memory than my old one and unfortunately I can no longer read F Scott Fitzgerald’s short stories on my iPhone which I was doing quite successfully. They are now only on my laptop and you guessed it I have not been able to read the stories since.

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