Friday, August 16, 2013

Can Our Brains Still Handle Both? Performing Multiple Shallow Tasks Simultaneously vs. Reading a Whole Book

I have been thinking about the post I made here last week about the rapid decline in e-book sales growth percentages.  As I pointed out there, e-book sales seem to be flattening out sooner, and at a much lower percentage of the total book market, than all the experts had predicted.   

I have mentioned (probably several times) that I find it difficult to read e-books - both reading them slower than physical books and retaining less of what I do read in them (a horrible combination, that).  Since all of my e-book reading is done on an iPad, my theory has been that I am too easily distracted by all the other iPad apps that are hovering (not always so quietly) in the background.  One little e-mail "ding," and I'm off to check email.  That leads me to wondering what has been going on with my Facebook and Twitter contacts.  Then I might check the market or a baseball score, and before I know it, twenty or thirty minutes have gone by and the book is growing ever dimmer in my memory.

Today I took my Kindle out of mothballs and sat down to read a book on a dedicated reader to see if that made a difference.  And it did.  Because I have a Kindle paperwhite, one of the Kindles that are only good for buying and reading e-books, my mind never wandered far from the pages I was reading.  That started me wondering whether the rapid rise in iPad and tablet sales is playing a big part in the declining sales of e-books (I think it is).  

Then, to top off the day, I found this article at Slate.com putting forth exactly the same theory.  This is part of that "Future Tense" piece:
...the iPad “does so many different things so well that there’s a constant urge when you’re using one to do something else. Two or three pages into a book, you’re already wondering whether you’ve got new mail, or whether anyone has added you on Twitter.” That is, tablets are distracting to readers because they offer other enticing things to do. But just how deep is this distraction? Why is it so compelling that it may be leading us away from using our tablets for e-book reading?
We can again turn to Carr for guidance since his book The Shallows sounds the alarm over the effects of Internet reading on our attention. For Carr, our use of the Internet is characterized by skimming, hyperlink following, and swift page surfing, and he claims that these actions are “literally changing the structure of our brain.” These effects stay with us even after we leave the screen and, in his view, make us into shallow and distracted thinkers. As he puts it, “our online habits continue to reverberate in the workings of our brain cells even when we’re not at a computer. We’re exercising the neural circuits devoted to skimming and multitasking while ignoring those used for reading and thinking deeply.” This line of thinking can apply as well to our e-reading preferences: Our rewired brains prefer using a tablet to perform multiple shallow tasks simultaneously, rather than for perusing entire e-books with care.
It seems there are enough unintended consequences in today's high-tech world to ensure that the "experts" are far from expert in predicting the future - and that is half the fun.

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