Online reading and the loss of empathy

As a lover of technology and books, I've long been interested in the effectiveness of how we absorb information from various sources: eBooks, online readers, podcasts, audiobooks, mobiles, and tablets.

As the space keeps changing, it is altering the way we read, remember and, most surprisingly, it is affecting our relationships.

Spatial and tactile cues

I will often buy a book because of its cover or overall design. Great design makes a book a pleasure to read and a clean layout means I’ll absorb the content without too much effort. That’s what every publisher should aim for.

Conversely, I’ve been put off reading some books because of the dense, poorly laid-out text that makes content difficult to access.

Classic textbook design elements such as bulleted lists, breakout boxes, and breakout quotes for key points, all make understanding and absorbing content easier. These elements give us visual cues that help us remember the content. eBooks don’t do this well because they don’t contain fixed points – when you adjust font size, the words on the pages move.

It turns out that having information located in a fixed point in space is important for comprehension. Just by picking up a book we get spacial and sensory cues that help us recall what we read by remembering roughly where it was in the book.

The more sensory inputs, the more we will remember. Losing these spacial and sensory cues means it is more difficult to remember what we read.

Fast, fragmented reading

Our typical digital reading is fast and fragmented.

Online, we are bombarded by new information and links to read something new. Whether we are on a newspaper site or social media, we constantly click for more, our brains fed by enticing shiny, new headlines. But there is no fixed point online and we jump from one (usually) brief post to another – and all digital space is virtually the same.

Loss of attention and empathy

Maryanne Wolf, one of the world’s leading neuroscience researchers on this topic, has found some disturbing results from this new reading environment.

Because we are bombarded by so much information and not immersed in what we read, the information we read doesn’t settle into our long-term memory. Over time this results in less background knowledge, and without this knowledge bank, we find it difficult to create analogies for new information in the future. We are losing our deep reading brains.

Professor Wolf’s research shows that the result of laying down fewer long-term memories is a loss of empathy for fellow human beings. In a very brief summary, her findings are:

  • Remembering less means we are less contemplative.

  • Contemplation and patience are essential ingredients for insight, for critical analysis, and for us to be imaginative.

  • Bombardment of information means we retreat into the comfortable and the familiar and become more conformist.

  • This retreat means we fail to take on alternate viewpoints and other people’s perspectives.

  • The result: we are losing empathy.

What to do?

So what are the key points to take away and how can we address the problem?

We are retreating from the process that makes us more thoughtful human beings: deep reading.

We are not going to stop reading online, that’s neither realistic nor necessary, but serious reading should be done in print.

What we need to do is work across the new and the old reading forms.

Never begin or end your day on screens: Preserve 15 minutes in the morning and the evening with something that will slow you down. During that time read something in print that makes you slow down and think. It could be a longer newspaper article, a few pages of fiction, or some history or philosophy, but it must be printed.