Is the Internet Destroying our Minds?

Jeanne d’Arc thinks so:

[T]he more I read online, the less I read off. I don’t think it’s even a matter of using up my reading time. It actually destroys brain cells or something, because if I’ve been doing too much online reading, I lose the patience for following a sustained or subtle argument, or reading a complex novel.

Kevin Drum agrees:

The same is true of me. It’s not just that I spend less time reading books, it’s that I find my mind wandering when I do read. After a few paragraphs, or maybe a page or two, I’ll run into a sentence that suddenly reminds me of something — and then spend the next minute staring into space thinking of something entirely unrelated to the book at hand. Eventually I snap back, but obviously this behavior reduces both my reading rate and my reading comprehension.

Is this really because of blogging? I don’t know for sure, but it feels like it’s related to blogging, and it’s a real problem. As wonderful as blogs, magazines, and newspapers are, there’s simply no way to really learn about a subject except by reading a book — and the less I do that, the less I understand about the broader, deeper issues that go beyond merely the outrage of the day.

Then again, maybe it’s just Jeanne and me. Anyone else feel this way?

Probably. But, sheesh, I’ve just read four whole paragraphs–plus the anciliary material around them that I had to scan through–so I’m a bit tired.

Seriously, there’s not much doubt that this happens. I spend a whole lot more time reading now than I did before I started the blog–and I read a lot then (I was, after all, in the publishing business and late of academe) — but my patience for the long form is lessened. I’d rather read a couple dozen column lenght pieces than a couple of long articles or a few book chapters.

I am not entirely sure that I agree with Kevin, though, that books are inherently superior to articles. As reference materials, certainly, books and their comparative depth reign supreme. In terms of impact on one’s mind, though, books tend to be a handful of salient points and a lot of repetition. There’s little in the book treatments of The End of History or The Clash of Civilizations that couldn’t have been more efficiently gleaned from their article-length predecessors.

Don Novello, of Father Guido Sarduci fame, used to joke that we remember precious little of what we learned in college:

Five-Minute University teaches you in five minutes what the average college student remembers five years after he or she’s out of school. . .

Say, if you want to take Spanish, what I teach you is “Co’mo esta usted.” That means “How are you.” And the response is “Muy bien.” That means “Very well.” And believe me, if you took two years of college Spanish, five years after you’re out of school, “Co’mo esta usted” and “Muy bien” is about all you’re gonna remember.

So in my school that’s all you learn . . . Economics? “Supply and demand.” That’s it . . .

While this is an exaggeration, it has some merits. I tend to remember only the highlights of books that I’ve read, incorporating them into an amalgamation of “things I think I know.” With well selected articles, which contain just the salient points without the repetitious examples, I can do this much more efficiently.

I hasten to add that this applies to the type of nonfiction that I tend to read. It does not hold true, for example, to great literature or other works where the narrative is as important as the factual content.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Ed says:

    I find myself reading more than ever since I began blogging, for the simple reason that the best bloggers seem so well-informed I figure THEY have to be reading a lot, too. I’m trying to keep up.

    My attention span depends more on the book and the author than on bad habits picked up while reading blogs.

  2. caltechgirl says:

    interestingly, I still prefer paper in many cases. Especially journal articles. I just CANNOT read those on the screen. I must have a highlighter in my hand and the article on paper.

  3. jane says:

    So the medium is the message? Wow!

    Yes different mediums encourage different styles of expression and attention. But blogs encourage more activity than TV.

    What I’m reading from these people you’re quoting is the lack of responsibility that marks our culture. You need to manage your time and engage in a variety of activities. Instead we are driven to confuse urgency with importance and to think it’s an accomplishment that we’re always busy.

    So our leaders have no time to think things through because that would show they’re not important. And we celebrate this.

    Addictions are something we should be able to confront, moderation is a virtue. In regards to processing information we’ve known this since the newspaper which focuses on the sensational and transient.

  4. Scott in CA says:

    I am guilty of reading a few lines and then drifting into thoughts about something different. I do this at bed, every night, while reading a real, paper book. The internet has nothing to do with it.

  5. John Burgess says:

    I read three to five books a week, in addition to a huge number of online writing. Often, I’ll take up a recommendation of a book on a topic I’m interested in–pro or con, doesn’t matter.

    While I’m probably not “representative,” whatever that means, I also doubt that I’m unique.

  6. Just Me says:

    The majority of my news reading is done online. I only read my local paper for the local stuff, or things that look interesting.

    I still read quite a bit offline, not as much before kids, but a love reading.

  7. McGehee says:

    From the Kevin Drum excerpt:

    After a few paragraphs, or maybe a page or two, I’ll run into a sentence that suddenly reminds me of something — and then spend the next minute staring into space thinking of something entirely unrelated to the book at hand.

    I have that happen too, but I learned 30 years ago not to pick up books by boring writers.