This weekend I read April Dembosky’s article, “Cerebral Circuitry” at Financial Times. In the article, Dembosky explains how researchers are studying how our use of technology is changing our brains, particularly in terms of empathy and human interaction.
From the article:
“There is growing concern that our emotional and empathetic pathways are being eroded by all the screen time. We spend so much time on our computers and gadgets that we are starting to think like them. Brain circuits are being rewired to accommodate these tools of modern life. We process more bits and bytes of information, and we are quite fast at it. But there could be a trade-off – our motivations to act like Superman are diminishing.”
A couple of months ago over at the Parking Lot Confessional, I blogged about my concerns over how reading online has negatively affected my ability to sit and read a book.
Again from Dembosky’s article:
“Our ability to pay attention and focus is also being taxed. Most studies show the human brain is not equipped to handle multiple streams of information at once. But we sit for many hours in front of multiple screens, flitting back and forth between various windows. A 2009 study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that people who had become practised at ‘chronic media multitasking’ were worse at filtering out irrelevant distractions and at switching between tasks than people who spent less time on gadgets.”
Looks like my concerns aren’t entirely unfounded. Reading this article on my laptop while sitting next to my son who was playing a game on my iPad, I began to despair over what we’re doing to our brains. But then I read this:
“Matt Langione lies on his back in an MRI machine, reading a copy of Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park. Neuroscientists in Stanford’s imaging laboratory are comparing the patterns in his brain when he skims the pages leisurely, and when he concentrates hard on the literary form. The technicians are surprised by what they find. The areas of the brain that light up during close reading are not just those associated with attention, but also those involved in movement and touch. It is as if readers physically place themselves in the story when they analyse it more carefully… That could mean the more people read superficially, the less they put themselves in other people’s shoes.”
And it hit me: this is why story matters. Getting lost in a book connects us to the emotional core of what it means to be human. It teaches us empathy and compassion by causing us to live in someone else’s world and walk a different path than our own.
Perhaps I’m off base here, teasing a theory from between the lines of the study. But my bet is if they focused on studying concentrated reading of fictional texts (which I hope they do), they’d find that reading stories makes us better people.