Weekly Musing: How Well Do You Comprehend?

A few weeks ago I read an Op-ed piece written by a local high school English teacher in my local newspaper. In it she discusses reading something in either print or digitally affects reading comprehension. One would not think the method of information delivery would make much of a difference but shockingly it does. When humans read digital text, they do not retain the information for as long. Also, our comprehension is worse than if the same information was read on paper.

Why is this? Both the Op-ed piece and another article posted by the Washington Post cite research showing people’s brains do not absorb information presented to them electronically as they do when they read it on paper. The research also pointed to people felt more confident they scored better when tested about information read digitally vs. print yet their scores were worse. Teachers report their students struggle with more complex text, missing key facts, and misinterpreting syntax especially in relation to the classics or lengthier texts.

One factor contributing to our ability to absorb information read online are the flashing ads, comments sections, and clickable links all of which greatly distract a person. The more links an article has, the more likely people are to click on those completely forgetting about the original article. People are less inclined to finish an online article then they would a print version.

The author of the Washington Post article notes how difficult it is for her to go back and read a physical book. For example, it took her 2 weeks to truly get involved with a book not because the book was dull, but because her eyes skimmed the pages searching for keywords. In essence she had to retrain her brain.

She wondered if this was just her but researchers have discovered the human brain is adapting to digital reading. Too much time reading computer text vs. print has resulted in their brains being wired differently. We are too use to clicking around, scrolling through a page, videos starting automatically so we have to stop them, so that when we sit down with a book and no distractions, we struggle to focus. This is good and bad as it shows how marvelous the brain is at adapting but bad because of how much information the mind is missing.

Is this a cause for alarm? Personally, I think so. Even though I greatly prefer print I’ve noticed I have to slow down my reading and force myself to pay attention despite the fact most of the books I read are physical. I can go months without touching my Kindle. I read a physical copy of my local newspaper even though as part of my subscription I could access an online version. When I critique stories I print them out to read them. I take breaks from the computer to read during lunch, write, and research yet I still struggle with my attention span. I never had this problem growing up.

As a writer I find it increasingly distressing the push toward flash fiction, short stories, and novellas because more and more readers are digital readers and apparently can’t be bothered by longer works. We’re told no long sentences (different from condemning purple prose) as readers don’t have the attention span. Shorter is better. Produce shorter works so that you can get your name out there faster and keep the public’s attention. It’s all about instant, fleeting gratification.

This isn’t sound advice nor is it an absolute. Look at how long readers waited for the final books of Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series. Some of the best-selling books are so thick they could be used as door stoppers. People still do read and want longer, complex prose.

Perhaps all this digital reading is why so many people get into arguments online. We don’t understand each other. We skim and only see what we want to see. Sit down with paper, retrain your brain in order to enjoy and fully understand what is being said.

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