This Week in Headline Skimming

If there wasn’t enough evidence out there that people don’t read on the web, this week brings us more in the forms of a clever April Fool’s Day joke and some less-amusing research on how skimming online is affecting our ability to read in-depth offline.

On April 1, NPR took a swipe at “readers” on Facebook who were commenting on and sharing stories they haven’t read. Accompanied by a generic picture of a bookshelf, the provocative post with the title, “Why Doesn’t America Read Anymore,” generated slews of comments from users denouncing the article’s purported thesis.

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In reality, the article clicked through to nothing more than a short paragraph congratulating “genuine readers” with the wherewithal to read more.

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The post continues to rack up comments which you can see here.

Though the knee-jerk commenting is annoying, I’m not going to hold it against anyone for not clicking through an article in their Facebook newsfeed. I skim over hundreds of news stories and status updates a day.

But what if all that skimming was beginning to rewire my brain? That’s exactly what researchers are beginning to discover.

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The Washington Post reports on cognitive neuroscientists doing research on the differences between online and print reading.

“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.”

It would seem our brains are constantly adapting, and in learning to process online information, they may be adapting away from the ability to read novels and classic literature with their long sentences and dependent clauses, which makes this English major very despondent in a Jane Austen kind of way. (Ha! Take that brain!)

“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.

The Internet is different. With so much information, hyperlinked text, videos alongside words and interactivity everywhere, our brains form shortcuts to deal with it all — scanning, searching for key words, scrolling up and down quickly. This is nonlinear reading, and it has been documented in academic studies. Some researchers believe that for many people, this style of reading is beginning to invade when dealing with other mediums as well.”

Take heart however; it’s not all gloom and doom. We may have the potential for developing “bi-literate brains.”

Read the rest of this fascinating article, Serious reading takes a hit from online scanning and skimming, researchers say.

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