Is Reading The Same As Digital Gaming?

Allison Gopnik wrote an insightful column in The Wall Street Journal, “The Kid Who Wouldn’t Let Go Of The Device,” March 22–23rd 2014. In it, she recounted the story of a little girl who was given “The Device” when she was only age 2. “It worked through a powerful and sophisticated optic nerve/ brain/ mind interface, injecting its content into her cortex. By the time she was 5, she had been utterly swept away into the alternative universe that The Device created.”

Gopnik goes on to recount how the images planted by The Device were more vivid to her than her own memories. As a grown woman, she was addicted to The Device and panicked at the thought that she might have to spend a day without it. What kind of electronic device was it ?  A laptop? A smart phone? No, none of the above.

The Device was the printed book.

Okay, I get it. And this is an enjoyable and well-written Journal article. But as clever as it is, I don’t think it meets the test when we compare books, as addictive as they might be, with electronic media.

In the first place, we are developing digital brains with new circuits for skimming as opposed to in-depth reading comprehension. Skimming may help us call out words quickly, but it isn’t the same as reading comprehension. That’s because we’re not stopping to ponder and we’re not reading in depth. Adults report increased difficulty reading long sentences with multiple clauses and in-depth background information.

Second, the average screen time of persons addicted to desktop and mobile devices now tops five hours per day.

Third, in addition to skimming, the reader is distracted by social networking and email invitations that are not available in a book.

Fourth, electronic game producers spend millions of dollars developing fascinating visual displays to seduce young children. This isn’t Mark Twain, folks, pounding out Huckleberry Finn on his trusty typewriter.

Fifth, unlike the printed book, these electronic devices are interactive. This raises the probability of addiction. Ms.Gopnik may have been deeply engaged in the stories she read and this undoubtedly enhanced her creativity and imagination, but at least she didn’t have to overcome the erosion of brainwashing that takes place with electronic media. In my book, The Digital Pandemic, I discuss the dilemma of the pug in the park.

“I had observed a crowd of people laughing as a cute little pug chased bits of reflected light on the sidewalk that came from the metal dog tags around his neck. Our dog was what we psychologists call “stimulus-bound.” The stimulus, or flashing lights, bound him as tightly as a rope or chain, and he couldn’t escape its hold over him. This frustrated little guy was both over-focused on the reflective light and under-focused on the world around him. Replace the cute dog with some of today’s children and the term electronic cocaine comes to mind. South Korea reports one in five students are addicted to Smartphone use of more than seven hours per day.

I also have concern about the brains of 4-to-8-year-old children. The brain –– especially the frontal lobes –– doesn’t reach full maturity until at least one’s mid-20s. The brain develops slowly, from back to the front, with the critically important frontal lobes –– which enable the child to plan, prioritize, and make complex decisions –– coming in last. As of yet, we don’t have evidence that electronic games stimulate the frontal lobes. Teachers report reduced imagination, shortened attention span and less frustration tolerance in these electronic wunderkinds.

So do we just welcome the new electronic culture? Is this similar to the discovery of fire and the invention of the wheel, or perhaps less awesome creations such as the airplane and automobile? The Digital Age is important alright, and brings many advantages. I’m not suggesting we go back to horse-and-buggy days, but it would’ve helped if we had used seatbelts for the first 50 years of the automobile. Countless lives –– maybe our own –– would have been saved.

And I have another worry. A big one. In Iian McGilchrist’s book, the Master and His Emissary (the Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World), McGilchrist warns that our culture is moving toward a left-brain view of the world that is disconnected and mechanical. It slices and dices people into abstract categories and ignores the creative and humorous attributes of the right side of the brain.

McGilchrist believes the left brain is pushing the right brain out of existence. “The left hemisphere, ever optimistic, is like a sleepwalker whistling a happy tune as  it ambles towards the abyss.” He points out that the left brain is a wonderful servant but a very poor master.

I share this fear –– the fear that sometime in the future, unlike the discovery of fire and the invention of the wheel, over-reliance on technology will speed up the demise of the human spirit as we know it.