Scrolling and Linking Our Way to Superficiality

Young woman reading (in the style of Petrus van Schendel) by anonymous (Wikimedia Commons image)
Young woman reading (in the style of Petrus van Schendel) by anonymous (Wikimedia Commons image)

For many centuries, the practice of lectio divina–close, meditative reading of holy texts–has been one of the most important forms of Christian meditation. Many other faiths, of course, also recognize the value of a slow immersion in sacred words.

Contrast that with our reading habits today. Instead of novels, we read blogs (guilty as charged). Instead of reading a chapter in a book, we read a few paragraphs on a website. When our interest flags, we click on to another site, and then another and another.

So when I read this article from the Washington Post I immediately saw myself in its description: Serious Reading Takes a Hit From Online Scanning and Linking

From the article: “We’re spending so much time touching, pushing, linking, scroll­ing and jumping through text that when we sit down with a novel, your daily habits of jumping, clicking, linking is just ingrained in you,” said Andrew Dillon, a University of Texas professor who studies reading. “We’re in this new era of information behavior, and we’re beginning to see the consequences of that.”

Cognitive neuroscientists, according to the article, believe that we are developing new brain circuits for skimming through vast amounts of information online. But this rewiring comes at a cost. Superficiality triumphs over comprehension. Speed replaces accuracy and engagement. Most disturbingly, when we do sit down to try to read something more serious, those habits of flitting from one topic to the next make it difficult to remain focused.

The article continues: 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.

I must confess that thanks to my iPad, I read fewer books than I used to. There’s always something more out there to sample–some bright and shiny tidbit of information or news (did you see the newest pictures of Prince George in New Zealand, for example?).

The one thing that seems to work for me is taking some time right after I get up in the morning to read more serious things. I know not everyone has that luxury, of course, and for you that time might come at another time of day or week instead. But I increasingly treasure the time before the day begins, before the details and tasks intrude on my consciousness too much, when I drink a cup of coffee and slowly work my way through a few pages of something that demands concentration. Over the past few years I’ve read the Gospels of Luke and Matthew this way, as well as several of Paul’s letters. I’ve savored books by Henri Nouwen, Anne Lamott, Richard Rohr, and James Martin. And each day, I read five of the Psalms (if you do five a day, you can do the whole shebang in a month). I’m a believer in the words of Dorothy Day (founder of the Catholic Worker Movement): “My strength returns to me with my cup of coffee and the reading of the Psalms.”

The article in the Post mentions the beginnings of a Slow Reading movement, a counterpart to the Slow Foods movement. The initiative is particularly important for children, for if you’ve never had the experience of truly immersing yourself in a piece of literature as a child, you’re not likely to take it up as an adult. And even if you once had the ability to read in-depth, because the brain constantly adapts, you may lose it. In a sense, we become what we read, just as we become what we eat.

Dear readers, do you find your reading habits changing because of being online so much? And does that have an impact on your spiritual life?

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  • Mississippi Pilgrim

    My reading habits altered as my comfort level has grown using the internet; however, there was no television in my childhood home so reading was THE activity I most enjoyed and still do. (Had I been allowed to play sports that likely would have been different but in SC only boys had ball teams.) I now read fewer novels–still many each year–and enjoy some authors on my iPad. I am on-the-road more than most and have come to also appreciate audio books . (I struggled with The Goldfinch because it was t-e-d-i-o-u-s however, it is as rich in language, ideas, plot and characters as ever I’ve read.)

    My spiritual life has been enhanced by this blog and so many of its book, movie and CD suggestions as well as enjoying a deeper connection to its readers and the author. Appreciating nature in all its forms is another primary source for my continued spiritual growth. I now have more time to savor these interests. Belongingness is THE icing on my cake of life. Again there is more discretionary time to enjoy email out-reach, travel and quality time with so many I love and who love me. Lastly, there are five grandchildren age four and under and only one is geographically distant. Now there’s spiritual growth and personal enhancement opportunity!

    Thanks, Holy Rover. It gave me joy to think on these blessings.

  • Mississippi Pilgrim

    My reading habits altered as my comfort level has grown using the internet; however, there was no television in my childhood home so reading was THE activity I most enjoyed and still do. (Had I been allowed to play sports that likely would have been different but in SC only boys had ball teams.) I now read fewer novels–still many each year–and enjoy some authors on my iPad. I am on-the-road more than most and have come to also appreciate audio books . (I struggled with The Goldfinch because it was t-e-d-i-o-u-s however, it is as rich in language, ideas, plot and characters as ever I’ve read.)

    My spiritual life has been enhanced by this blog and so many of its book, movie and CD suggestions as well as enjoying a deeper connection to its readers and the author. Appreciating nature in all its forms is another primary source for my continued spiritual growth. I now have more time to savor these interests. Belongingness is THE icing on my cake of life. Again there is more discretionary time to enjoy email out-reach, travel and quality time with so many I love and who love me. Lastly, there are five grandchildren age four and under and only one is geographically distant. Now there’s spiritual growth and personal enhancement opportunity!

    Thanks, Holy Rover. It gave me joy to think on these blessings.

  • Anne Tanner

    My family didn’t have television, either, and I had a permanent book attached to my left hand. Mom would tell me no reading at the dinner table, so I’d put the book on my lap and try to snatch a sentence or two when I thought no one was looking. She worried that I wasn’t learning to socialize with other children; I felt the other children always wanted to play, which got in the way of reading.

    However, I too plead guilty to scatterbrained reading now. The Internet is a toy store and I’m a kid, skipping from one attraction to another and passing over something because I think it’s too long. In the mornings I read the newspaper–the first scattered reading mechanism I became addicted to. Then blogs, email, messages, web pages…. And eventually, guilt because I’m not getting anything else done. I find it harder and harder to concentrate on the family history I’m writing (while keeping one eye on the mudslide in Washington near a friend’s home or some other news story on television). My littered house and neglected garden betray my inability to get things done. But it’s addictive–I find it really hard to keep away from my computer for a whole day.

    What I really need is a couple of days at New Melleray Abbey without any electronic media along. The brother who takes reservations has the last name of Tanner and does genealogy in his spare time–we chat online frequently (and there I go again….)

    Anne

  • Anne Tanner

    My family didn’t have television, either, and I had a permanent book attached to my left hand. Mom would tell me no reading at the dinner table, so I’d put the book on my lap and try to snatch a sentence or two when I thought no one was looking. She worried that I wasn’t learning to socialize with other children; I felt the other children always wanted to play, which got in the way of reading.

    However, I too plead guilty to scatterbrained reading now. The Internet is a toy store and I’m a kid, skipping from one attraction to another and passing over something because I think it’s too long. In the mornings I read the newspaper–the first scattered reading mechanism I became addicted to. Then blogs, email, messages, web pages…. And eventually, guilt because I’m not getting anything else done. I find it harder and harder to concentrate on the family history I’m writing (while keeping one eye on the mudslide in Washington near a friend’s home or some other news story on television). My littered house and neglected garden betray my inability to get things done. But it’s addictive–I find it really hard to keep away from my computer for a whole day.

    What I really need is a couple of days at New Melleray Abbey without any electronic media along. The brother who takes reservations has the last name of Tanner and does genealogy in his spare time–we chat online frequently (and there I go again….)

    Anne

  • Ruth

    Oh, yes. I resemble this. As to the impact on my spiritual life, I find that even “spiritual” reading tends to come in shorter and shorter pieces these days. In contrast, I’ve found that reading longer works — on almost any topic — can be spiritually enriching. I’m now indulging in a U.S. Civil War history, “Fall of the House of Dixie,” history that is tremendously thought-provoking and satisfying.

  • Ruth

    Oh, yes. I resemble this. As to the impact on my spiritual life, I find that even “spiritual” reading tends to come in shorter and shorter pieces these days. In contrast, I’ve found that reading longer works — on almost any topic — can be spiritually enriching. I’m now indulging in a U.S. Civil War history, “Fall of the House of Dixie,” history that is tremendously thought-provoking and satisfying.

  • Darcy

    Oh, Spiritual Traveler, what you speak is truth! When I find myself trying to tell my husband something I read on the internet, I can’t even remember the punchline! But just let me try to recount something from The Bully Pulpit by Doris Kearns Goodwin, and I can practically do it word for word. She is such a spectacular writer that I have read it slowly and I’ve tried to learn every little factoid that she supplied.

    I wish that I could have the hours back that I spent skimming little stories that I can’t remember, and the hyperlinks–oh, so much time–time to load, time to watch, and time spent on the NEXT link they provided.

    I don’t start with the Psalms but maybe one day. I do start with two cups of coffee and my most concentrated, uninterrupted reading of the day. Every day.

    Except…for today when my husband had to leave the house earlier and I had to make sure that my internet connection was working because our router is upstairs…and so I logged on, checked the connection, checked my email, and tracked some items that were shipped, and read and posted on a blog :)…while Teddy Roosevelt and the muckrakers languish beside me.

  • Darcy

    Oh, Spiritual Traveler, what you speak is truth! When I find myself trying to tell my husband something I read on the internet, I can’t even remember the punchline! But just let me try to recount something from The Bully Pulpit by Doris Kearns Goodwin, and I can practically do it word for word. She is such a spectacular writer that I have read it slowly and I’ve tried to learn every little factoid that she supplied.

    I wish that I could have the hours back that I spent skimming little stories that I can’t remember, and the hyperlinks–oh, so much time–time to load, time to watch, and time spent on the NEXT link they provided.

    I don’t start with the Psalms but maybe one day. I do start with two cups of coffee and my most concentrated, uninterrupted reading of the day. Every day.

    Except…for today when my husband had to leave the house earlier and I had to make sure that my internet connection was working because our router is upstairs…and so I logged on, checked the connection, checked my email, and tracked some items that were shipped, and read and posted on a blog :)…while Teddy Roosevelt and the muckrakers languish beside me.

  • James Laney

    Thanks for the comments and article. Amen to all that. I appreciate the the Collect for Proper 28, the Sunday closest to November 16, in the Book of Common Prayer, and feel it applies not only to Scripture, but any text worth reading:

    Blessed Lord, who has caused all holy Scripture to be written for our learning: Grant us so to hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them….

    Lectio divina, indeed!

  • James Laney

    Thanks for the comments and article. Amen to all that. I appreciate the the Collect for Proper 28, the Sunday closest to November 16, in the Book of Common Prayer, and feel it applies not only to Scripture, but any text worth reading:

    Blessed Lord, who has caused all holy Scripture to be written for our learning: Grant us so to hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them….

    Lectio divina, indeed!

  • Crisonhaler

    Thank you for a timely and important meditation, Holy Rover. As an English teacher, I can affirm that culture is shifting in radical new directions because of the new online universe. We are living in an avalanche of change. I find the changes exciting and also troubling, for all the reasons listed here and more. As antidote for the unintended negative side effects of the Information Age, I am particularly intrigued by the Slow Reading Movement, and I will definitely look into that concept for both my students and myself.

  • Crisonhaler

    Thank you for a timely and important meditation, Holy Rover. As an English teacher, I can affirm that culture is shifting in radical new directions because of the new online universe. We are living in an avalanche of change. I find the changes exciting and also troubling, for all the reasons listed here and more. As antidote for the unintended negative side effects of the Information Age, I am particularly intrigued by the Slow Reading Movement, and I will definitely look into that concept for both my students and myself.

  • Carl

    I remember my college roommate first year remarking that “I’ve never known somebody who reads for leisure like you, Carl.”

    I think that the problem for many college students isn’t necessarily that the internet distracts them (though it assuredly does), but that after reading thirty pages of academic text, there isn’t a whole lot of mental energy left to dig into a novel or spiritual text–it’s just an automatic jump to a website or blog that lets your mind unwind. In times like this, I remember what the ‘Buddha’ said: “Before you can fill your cup anew, it must be emptied out.”

  • Carl

    I remember my college roommate first year remarking that “I’ve never known somebody who reads for leisure like you, Carl.”

    I think that the problem for many college students isn’t necessarily that the internet distracts them (though it assuredly does), but that after reading thirty pages of academic text, there isn’t a whole lot of mental energy left to dig into a novel or spiritual text–it’s just an automatic jump to a website or blog that lets your mind unwind. In times like this, I remember what the ‘Buddha’ said: “Before you can fill your cup anew, it must be emptied out.”