Digital Devices Have a Concrete Problem

zombie-mobileUsing digital devices keeps us from thinking in the abstract and seeing the big picture; what science is learning about our screen time.

“You have a glazed look in your eye; stunned, stupefied, anesthetized, lobotomized…” says Zelda Fitzgerald to the time-shifting Gil in “Midnight in Paris.”

She could have been speaking to anyone just looking up from their digital device, trying to refocus and regain presence.

It’s not just an opinion that digital is changing the way our brains operate. Another research study, this one by the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM), found that “using digital platforms such as tablets and laptops for reading may make you more inclined to focus on concrete details rather than interpreting information more abstractly,” according to a Dartmouth press release.

The research sought to understand if reading on digital versus media changed our baseline problem-solving and abstract thinking mindset. Understanding this would, ideally, lead to improved design of digital devices, according to the study designers.

When presented with reading material (digital or print) and asked several questions to test comprehension,  participants tended to answer concrete questions better when reading on digital, while the abstract questions had superior results in print.

“There has been a great deal of research on how digital platforms might be affecting attention, distractibility and mindfulness, and these studies build on this work, by focusing on a relatively understudied construct,” said Geoff Kaufman, a leader of the study. “Given that psychologists have shown that construal levels can vastly impact outcomes such as self-esteem and goal pursuit, it’s crucial to recognize the role that digitization of information might be having on this important aspect of cognition,” he added.

This study joins others that find that digital media leads to a more localized, detail-oriented approach to understanding and problem-solving; the use of digital media is training our brains to think less in the big-picture, abstract and theoretical perspectives that are so crucial to any culture’s evolution.

“Sometimes, it is beneficial to foster abstract thinking, and as we know more, we can design to overcome the tendencies – or deficits –inherent in digital devices,” added Mary Flanagan, co-leader of the study.

It’s no secret that digital media is dumbing us down by competing with the deep reading circuitry humans have developed over millennia; reading comprehension, recall, even math scores take a hit when screens replace paper media.

Now we learn that narrows our insights and limits abstract thinking and creative problem solving. I think it’s time to paint on a cave wall or something and reignite our ancient and innate intelligence.