How the Internet Affects Your Brain: Skimming, Religion

Two articles I’ve been meaning to cover for a while…

First, cognitive neuroscientists are observing that the Internet’s information overload is changing how our brains work.[1]

In order to deal with all the information coming at us, we’re re-wiring our brains to skim over large bodies of text quickly and pick out the relevant bits.

While this is in and of itself probably a good thing — I would argue the same “skimming” approach is highly useful for penetrating the mass-media propaganda fog — it does have its disadvantages.

Specifically, it seems the “skimming circuits” are competing with the older “deep reading” ones. This older deep reading ability is what lets you sit down and plow through a novel. It comes into play when you’re faced with complex sentences, multiclausal in nature, just like I like to use probably a little more than is good for me.

(I will note that this is mostly an English-world problem. While old world German is legendary for its page-long sentences, even contemporary German-language coverage of the Snowden affair activates those deep-reading centres of the brain.)

In order to get the best of both worlds, I would suggest curling up with a good-ole-fashioned book every once in a while.

The other thing I wanted to tell you about is about religion — the Internet appears to be destroying it. According to a study in Technology Review [2], the growth of the Internet has triggered a reduction in religious belief across the US.

Together with two other factors (a reduction in religious upbringing, and an increase in college level education), the Internet accounts for about 50% of the drop in religious affiliation over the last 20 years.

Why? I would guess for a few reasons. The Internet brings people views of other cultures and ways of thinking, including scientific ways of thinking. That’s probably the most obvious reason. It’s also TECHNICAL, a very cold and “left-brain” kind of thing, which may be antithetical to the warm “right-brain” emotional aspects of religion.

Who knows.

Of course, there’s a mysterious “X” factor — a fourth element, which the researchers have not been able to identify — that produced an even bigger drop. This fourth factor accounted for the other 50% of the drop, representing a bigger impact on religious belief than upbringing, Internet, and college education combined.

[1] http://www.washingtonpost.com/local/serious-reading-takes-a-hit-from-online-scanning-and-skimming-researchers-say/2014/04/06/088028d2-b5d2-11e3-b899-20667de76985_story.html

[2] http://www.technologyreview.com/view/526111/how-the-internet-is-taking-away-americas-religion/

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