Your Brain on Facebook

15 Aug
Or, I worry for my generation
reading by madelinetosh

Photo credit to madelinetosh

So, apparently our bodies were built for running not reading; you could have fooled me.  My brain, body, and general self like reading (whether physical or digital text) more than pretty much any other activity.  I feel a deep affinity with text; for me, it’s central to my human condition. 

Today I read an article (“Will the speed of online reading deplete our analytic thought?” – The Guardian) that started with the premise that humans weren’t built for reading; that it’s not something that we’re genetically coded to do.

“To begin with, the human brain was never meant to read. Not text, not papyrus, not computer screens, not tablets. There are no genes or areas in the brain devoted uniquely to reading. Rather, our ability to read represents our brain’s protean capacity to learn something outside our repertoire by creating new circuits that connect existing circuits in a different way. Indeed, every time we learn a new skill – whether knitting or playing the cello or using Facebook – that is what we are doing.”

Ivy reads in bed by Richard Masoner

Photo credit to Richard Masoner

Scientifically, it totally makes sense.  Back when we were learning to walk up right, cave men and women weren’t looking for partners that could read.  Evolutionarily speaking, reading’s a fairly recent development.  But now, it’s so ubiquitous.  For a vast majority of the world’s population, reading is part of the human experience.  (You think its opposable thumbs that separate us from apes?  Nope.  It’s Shakespeare.  I don’t believe that million monkeys at a million typewriters for a million years thing.)

The article goes on to say that, although our collective brains aren’t changed by reading, our individual brains are.  Learning to read, especially to read deeply, changes the way your brain functions and changes the areas of the brain that you use.  Most interestingly,

“The brain’s plasticity allows an intrinsic variety of possible circuits – there is no set genetic programme. For example, in the case of reading, this means there will be different reading brains depending on various environmental factors: the Chinese reading brain, for example, uses far more visual areas because there are more characters to learn.”

Although the article didn’t say it, I’m guessing that this is a big win for multi-lingual people.  (Of whom I’m insanely jealous – I’m waiting for the price of Rosetta Stone to drop at Borders.)

Yet to read by Caro Wallis

Photo credit to Caro Wallis

“Wow, Maggie.  That’s cool, but isn’t this a little sciency for a post on MaggieCakes?  Are we ever going to get to the part about social media or technology?”

Ah, yes – social media.  So here’s the thing, as we spend more time on social media, engaging with short busts of text, images, and videos; we’re spending less of our reading time actually reading.  We’re taking in text and processing it, but we’re not deeply engaged with it.  For your brain, reading a book in a quiet room is different that reading a blog while flashing back and forth with Facebook, Twitter, and a chat app, TV blaring in the background.  (Not that you’d do that while reading my post.  You keep a special computer in a shrine that you’ve set up just for this purpose, right?)  And, as we spend more time on Facebook and less time deeply reading (really, there are only so many hours in the day), will our brains lose the ability to deeply focus on a text, to tune out distraction and think about the words in front of us?

“The questions that our society must ask revolve around whether the time-consuming demands of the deep-reading processes will be lost in a culture whose principal mediums advantage speed, multitasking, and processing the next and the next piece of information. Will an immersion in digitally-dominated forms of reading change the capacity of the young readers to form and to develop their deep reading processes?”

Kids Reading Nook by ooh_food

Photo credit to ooh_food

I’ve heard that, for perhaps the first time in human history, my generation will be the first one to be poorer than its parents.  Are we going to be less literate, too? 

Confession: While reading comments on the original article and brainstorming for this post, I flashed back and forth to Facebook, checked my blog stats, and watched a crime procedural.  So yeah, there’s my brain turning to mush.

Questions of the day:  Does your internet time cut into your reading time?  Do you believe that it’s eroding your ability to read deeply?  Helping you learn to multi-task?

MaggieCakes is a blog about social media, marketing, culture, and what’s new on the internet written by me, Maggie O’Toole.  Every day (okay, I try for every day) I comb blogs and news outlets for the news about internet culture and social media to bring them to you (with my commentary, of course) here on MaggieCakes. Find anything interesting in the worlds of culture or social media that you’d like to see a post on? Leave a comment or send me an e-mail at

3 Responses to “Your Brain on Facebook”

  1. Paul Leroux August 16, 2011 at 7:28 pm #

    Blogging certainly makes greater demands on our brains than Facebook and Twitter. It allows more scope for thoughtful analysis, and not just responding to what others have posted.

    P.S. Being multilingual also helps to fend off Alzheimer’s. One more reason for you to be jealous of us polyglots 🙂


  2. carljbspencer August 18, 2011 at 10:51 am #

    My brain hurts…

    It is funny though because sometimes it does feel as though I am actively having to force myself to interpret and understand what I’m reading, almost as if the cogs of my brain are actually turning whilst I’m staring blankly at the page (or screen). This is always more pronounced when feeling tired, or bored (as I am in work now… shhh) and I might have to re-read certain things.

    That said, I’ve always been a natural reader. My sister however, has never really read a ‘proper’ book (meaning one without pretty pictures and no more than 10 words per page) and is currently reading Harry Potter under duress. She takes at least 10 times longer to read a page than I would because – in her words – she needs to read slowly to understand what’s going on. I guess her circuits are still a work-in-progress!


  1. Your Brain on Facebook (via MaggieCakes) « Novel Journeys - August 22, 2011

    […] Or, I worry for my generation So, apparently our bodies were built for running not reading; you could have fooled me.  My brain, body, and general self like reading (whether physical or digital text) more than pretty much any other activity.  I feel a deep affinity with text; for me, it’s central to my human condition.  Today I read an ar … Read More […]

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