Sign up FAST! Login

Why can’t we read anymore? — Medium

Stashed in: Brain, Attention, Meditate, Awesome, xkcd!, Books!, books, Kindle!, Web Culture, Medium, Neuroscience, Meditation

To save this post, select a stash from drop-down menu or type in a new one:

Dopamine and digital

It turns out that digital devices and software are finely tuned to train us to pay attention to them, no matter what else we should be doing. The mechanism, borne out by recent neuroscience studies, is something like this:

  • New information creates a rush of dopamine to the brain, a neurotransmitter that makes you feel good.
  • The promise of new information compels your brain to seek out that dopamine rush.

With fMRIs, you can see the brain’s pleasure centres light up with activity when new emails arrive.

So, every new email you get gives you a little flood of dopamine. Every little flood of dopamine reinforces your brain’s memory that checking email gives a flood of dopamine. And our brains are programmed to seek out things that will give us little floods of dopamine. Further, these patterns of behaviour start creating neural pathways, so that they become unconscious habits: Work on something important, brain itch, check email, dopamine, refresh,dopamine, check Twitter, dopamine, back to work. Over and over, and each time the habit becomes more ingrained in the actual structures of our brains.

How can books compete?

I think this is only part of it, there's also the addiction to permanent connection with your fellow humans.

Humans are very social animals, they need the other to be happy and technologies now offer the possibility to stay in contact with friends and relatives 24/7, and I think that's extremely addictive too.

Dopamine is probably playing its roll here, but I meant that it was not just about the excitement of getting "new information" but, in particular, in this case, to get new information from people that matters to you.

And that's obviously not something a book could compete with.

Unless you have very special friends that only communicate by writing books, haha. : )


Friends and relatives text, sure, but I find myself being drawn to social media for new info.  I seek it.

Books can compete by being a respite from that exhausting dopamine cycle. 

For me books vs Internet aren't competing so much. It's that books are very tied to specific places and times where I can read: bed, bus, bathroom ;) If I change any of those habits, like bike commuting instead of taking the bus, it cuts into my reading time. Oddly enough, loading the Kindle app on my phone actually helped me read more! Instead of hitting up Twitter, the very definition of diminishing returns, I can just as easily pull up a book for a few pages.

You are the exception.

Most people if they have 5 free minutes don't pull up Kindle.

They pull up Facebook or maybe Twitter, Instagram, or Snapchat. 

Don't forget Whatsapp, imgur and reddit!

You know, the Internet does have a lot of things to do. 

Why are books important?

When I think back on my life, I can define a set of books that shaped me — intellectually, emotionally, spiritually. Books have always been an escape, a learning experience, a saviour, but beyond this, greater than this, certain books became, over time, a kind of glue that holds together my understanding of the world. I think of them as nodes of knowledge and emotion, nodes that knot together the fabric my self. Books, for me anyway, hold together who I am.

Books, in ways that are different to visual art, to music, to radio, to love even, force us to walk through another’s thoughts, one word at a time, over hours and days. We share our minds for that time with the writer’s. There is a slowness, a forced reflection required by the medium that is unique. Books recreate someone else’s thoughts inside our own minds, and maybe it is this one-to-one mapping of someone else’s words, on their own, without external stimuli, that give books their power. Books force us to let someone else’s thoughts inhabit our minds completely.

Books are not just transferrers of knowledge and emotion, but a special kind of tool that flattens one self into another, that enable the trying-on of foreign ideas and emotions.

This suppressing of the self is a kind of meditation too — and while books have always been important to me on their own (pre-digital) merits, it started to occur to me that “learning how to read books again,” might also be a way to start weaning my mind away from this dopamine-soaked digital detritus, this meaningless wash of digital information, which would have a double benefit: I would be reading books again, and I would get my mind back.

And, there are, often, beautiful universes to be found on the other side of the cover of a book.

Except for the meditation part, the same can be said for television.

What I really like with reading compared to watching, is that you can set your own pace, if you want to slow down on some paragraph because it's complicated, or because it's pretty and you want to take the time to appreciate it, you can. 

It's also far easier to jump paragraphs or pages with a quick glance to find the information you're looking for.

These thing are now possible on videos with current technologies but they are far less convenient, you're kind of forced to follow the rhythm the creator decided, and I really don't like being forced to do things.


That's a good point: You create your own pace. 

You May Also Like: