Paper vs Pixels. Does it matter how we read? Conclusions.

Image courtesy of

Image courtesy of

Is it too dramatic?

You think I’m overdoing it to write that we’re outsourcing our minds to SEO?

Probably not.

Interesting things are happening to your brain, the more time you spend reading online as opposed to reading from books.

Reading books, or from paper, focuses the brain on an effortful task, deepening its grasp of what you’re reading, plugging into memories you already have, and helping it forge new connections. (You can read like this online too, it’s just harder and, in any event, much of the web isn’t structured that way.)

It promotes deep thinking, and in doing so, helps build brains. You cannot hope to grow a muscle without exercising it. Likewise, you cannot hope to grow your brain without exercising it.

Side note:Repeated activation of connections strengthens those same connections. It also promotes the growth of myelin, a fatty insulator that wraps around brain cells and facilitates transmission of communication within cells.

As we practise a skill for example, we can see improvements in our performance; smoother, better execution etc. Myelin is at work to help. The more myelin you have, the better.

Frequently used circuits, those you’ve exercised or practised the most, are also the most physically durable. They withstand more disease and damage. By extension, the more frequently you make the brain focused on a task, the more myelin, the tougher your brain.

When you exercise working memory only, such as when we’re on the web, the brain responds by partially and momentarily strengthening existing connections between neurons. It does this at the synapse, which is the juncture between neurons, for the time that you’re working with that piece of information.

This is what happens when we skim, which is fast becoming the dominant style of reading. However, because working memory has only a limited capacity, and its contents are regularly changing, and there is a steady stream of information and distractions, creating a high cognitive load, the brain isn’t firing the same connections over and over, but a range of them.

What we’re doing is offering the brain so much choice, that its resources become overwhelmed, and it doesn’t learn.

Repetition, not endless variety, is key to learning. It’s the timely repetition that hones a skill, growing myelin and, creating magic.

When you engage the brain in deeper concentration, deeper thinking, which leads to long-term memories, such as when you read books, or when you think deeply and effortfully on a task, new things happen.

Awesome things.

Magical things

Neurons split open, rupturing to give birth to new extensions of themselves which slither and slip their way towards neighboring brain cells.

It is a marvel.

Momentary strengthening of the synapse, the place where two neurons meet, is characteristic of working memory. But when neurons stretch, when they split and form new synapses, alongside repeated strengthening of existing synapses, this is the development of Brand New Connections.

This is the formation of long-term memory. This is how we learn and remember, and it’s how the brain builds itself into a physically stronger entity.

By creating tissue and networks that are physically more robust, we give the brain depth, more substance, and the capacity, should it need it, to move functions around in the face of trauma or disease, to withstand more damage.

A brain built largely on working memory is a house built on sand. It will become intellectually weak and cognitively flabby. It will be more susceptible to weakening, less capable of deep thinking, and complex reasoning, and more easily overwhelmed.

A working memory brain relies on speed and flexibility, but it’s error prone, automatic, limited in capacity, relying on familiar and recent things rather than careful, sustained thought. We must have working memory, and we must nurture it. But, alone, it isn’t enough.

Repetition strengthens synapses and builds new connections. We need myelin. We need brains capable of complex reasoning and deep thought. We need to read books and turn off the distractions. Distractions breed distractibility, and increase cognitive load, which undermines learning.

Read a book.

Paper defeats pixels.

To conclude

The web is changing your brain, like it or not. It’s becoming weaker, less able to concentrate for prolonged periods, and less able to hold what it saw. Your memory might not be what it was.

No matter you think…

Sure, you can go to your history and find the web page again. Everything is instantly available again with the click of your mouse on a pre-populated search box in an engine designed to make sure you never have to think much and clouds to ensure you never have to remember…

So here’s the take home bit

Read to your children. Read yourself. A lot.

Turn off the tv.

Turn off the monitor.

Have mandatory electronic free time.

Play strategy games, language games and maths games with your kids.

For that matter, play games with your friends.

When your kids are younger, read aloud. It’s better. When they’re older, still read aloud.

Seriously. Go and do it now.

Welcome back.

Buy books and teach them to love them.

Use books as the foundation of education.

A brain built on reading, and a brain built by education, is a tougher, more resilient, more capable brain with deep cognitive reserve.

Yes, an education is still the best defence against dementia. 

Curiously, even in a brain ravaged by dementia, reading stays intact.

A resilient, physically strong brain, will last the distance.

The brain the web builds, will not.

Impressive words to drop into the morning coffee chat

Working memory, distractibility

What do you think?

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About brendonbclark

Hi, I’m Brendon, but people usually call me B. I’ve a Masters degree in psychology, postgraduate qualification in mental health, and qualifications in counselling, professional supervision and adult education. I consult, speak and blog. Join me, you can subscribe for free.
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