Neuroscience of the Gist

If I hadn’t given up regular TV watching about 20 years ago, I’d probably still be channel-surfing into oblivion.  You’ve been there, right?  Whatever you’re watching can’t possibly be as good or important as whatever you’re missing.  With hundreds of available channels, this is just mathematically reasonable in a very frustrating way.  Maybe, but it’s also an example of how technological access to more can make a person so distracted that he winds up investing time in nothing.  Thankfully, on-demand options for home viewing of filmed media have obviated the need for me ever to channel-surf, but then the Internet and social media came along and brought a whole new ADD-like experience to our lives.

Enter the Facebook feed and Tweetdecks and all those stories of great interest shared by people you love, trust, admire, etc.  There’s no way any of us is reading all of those stories unless we have nothing else to do, so do we pick and choose among them? Or do we just gloss over nearly all of it?  And is all this glossing — my friend calls it “gisting” — better than ignoring the apparently substantive content altogether and sticking to a favored news source. Is skimming over fragments of stories actually changing our brains?  According to cognitive neuroscientist Maryanne Wolf, all this gisting may be harming our ability to engage in what she calls “deep reading.”

In this interview, Wolf talks to Robin Young, co-host of the NPR program Here & Now.  To quote:

YOUNG: You had a great line. You said TV produced soundbite culture; online reading is producing eyebite culture.

WOLF: Yes, I’m afraid that what we’re becoming is so inured to seizing the most salient word that we are literally eliminating the music, the thoughts in between those words, some of the most precious aspects of written language.

Wolf wonders if we are not evolving what Young summarizes in her intro as “digital brains.”  And I think this is more than just a generic term for our times, but is rather an appropriate reference for precisely what Dr. Wolf feels may be lost if what we’re witnessing is really a stage in evolution.

If you think about what any audiophile will tell you is wrong with digital music, it’s that all sorts of nuance no longer exists for the contemporary listener to a typical MP3, for example.  Overtones, undertones, and various other sounds are far too subtle to be captured by mass-production, digital sampling; and in a very similar way it seems to me, Wolf is concerned that our own habit of sampling disparate text might make us deaf to the music of written language or at least impatient with it.  Wolf describes her own experience after a period of 5 to 8 hours of screen-reading per day and being unable to return to a favored novel by Herman Hesse.  She states that it took two weeks of purposeful effort to reform those temporarily dormant connections in her brain.

Wolf is less concerned with adults than with children who have yet to build that neurological foundation, which  enables us not only to engage with richer texts, but even to enjoy them.  To hear the whole symphony, if you will.  She is quick to say that she does not advocate turning back the clock and cutting kids off from technology.  “We have to equip our children with 21st-century skills. But at the same time, we must know how to form those reading circuits that allow what I call deep reading. It takes years to form in a child, and it takes milliseconds in us to use. And those milliseconds don’t just come naturally; we have to learn to use them.”

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