Reading On Paper or On Screen: Are We Developing “Bi-literal Brains”?

Are the universe of desk-bound and mobile devices and the ubiquity of their screens having an effect on the processes and neurology of the way we read? If so, how does reading on a screen as opposed to reading on paper influence our navigation, comprehension, retention and enjoyment of all of these words we consuming?

Recently, these fascinating and persistent issues were taken up with some new perspectives and heightened interest in a podcast and an article. I highly recommend clicking through to them if you have an opportunity to do so for their deep and wide insights into the ongoing evolution of reading.

First, is the podcast entitled The ‘Bi-literate’ Brain: The Key to Reading in a Sea of Screens, posted on September 17, 2014 on the New Tech City blog hosted by Manoush Zomorodi on WYNC in New York. In her interviews with several experts, the emerging concept of the development of the “bi-literal brain” is explored. That is, how reading on a screen, so distinctly less linear than traditional reading on a printed page, is thus causing the appearance of new adaptive changes in our brains.

As explored in this podcast, electronic text is laced with hyperlinks that can readily draw the reader to many other virtual venues. Moreover, the siren calls of email, texting, Tweeting and checking Facebook are all distractions from reading that are increasingly difficult to resist. Yet printed text does not offer these temptations and that produces some compelling advantages to the reader. In fact, both of these modes of reading produce both positive and negative results on concentration and absorption of the facts, stories, events, opinions, quotes and so on across pages composed of atoms as well as bits. (Also note that the page where this podcast is posted also contains links to seven additional articles for further valuable, well, reading.)

Second, in a thought-provoking article about the benefits of setting time aside for uninterrupted reading, preferably on paper, entitled Read Slowly to Benefit Your Brain and Cut Stress, by Jeanne Wahlen, appeared in the September 15, 2014 edition of The Wall Street Journal. This report covered the recent formations of local reading clubs around the world where people gather in quiet and comfortable places to spend an average of an hour or so just reading print materials without any interruptions. Attendees spoke of the great virtues of quiet and concentration that helped them to relax a bit and process their printed texts more fully. The author makes a comparison of this form of “slow reading” to the culinary process of “slow cooking“.* This story also contains a very informative and persuasive graphic that lists the process tips and health benefits of dedicating time to nothing but reading.

Upon both listening to the podcast and then reading the article within 24 hours of each other, I was reminded of another very enlightening article I read entitled The Reading Brain in the Digital Age: The Science of Paper versus Screens by Ferris Jabr in the April 2013 issue of Scientific American. This piece likewise examined the very same issues of how digital technology is affecting our reading mechanics and, in turn, the longer-term neurological implications. The author summarizes and sorts through some of the leading research in this field, highlighting the areas of agreement and inconsistency in the results.** Paper gets the edge here because, to greatly simplify the detailed findings so eloquently presented in this article, it better enables the reader to navigate the text by proving a physical sense of where they are on the page and in the entire body of the text, improves retention rates, and it is easier on the eyes. Even the actual weight of printed material has its benefits.

I believe that all of these issues will continue to evolve as scientists and researchers continue to their studies and experiments into the very nature of what “reading” skills are, whether and how they can be taught and improved, and what new media formats and devices will appear and thereby further affect these human skills and the nature of how we process written information. My additional questions include:

  • Does the availability of Google and other search engines change what is “information” and how it is transformed into “knowledge”? Is exercising and relying upon one’s memory thus less important if we can quickly do a search anywhere about anything?
  • If indeed “bi-literal brains” are a genuine phenomenon, are there currently resources and skills available to improve and cross-train both sets of skills while minimizing their negative effects? Might there be some new entrepreneurial opportunities awaiting here?
  • Whether and how should content creators, content strategists and content publishers continue to adapt to these changing environments?

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* I hope that no one out there accidentally gets these concepts confused because this might lead to having to eat your your own words.

** Maryanne Wolf of Turfts University was interviewed for both the WNYC podcast and the Scientific American article.

Mapping All the Stars in the Milky Way and All the Devices in the Web Way

This week, BusinessInsider.com has posted two articles that present extraordinary visualizations of all the known stars in our own celestial home – – no, not of Hollywood – – but rather, The Milky Way, while the other is of our own virtual world representing by all devices connected to the Web. I think that viewing them together makes for a very thought-provoking juxtaposition of the celestial and terrestrial/virtual worlds, and side-by-side comparison of their individual density. Moreover, they each display their striking vastness and beauty.

First, in an article entitled Incredible New Milky Way Map Is The Most Detailed Survey Of Our Stellar Home Ever Created, by Jessica Orwig, posted on September 16, 2014, we are presented with a “fish-eye mosaic” of the 219 million stars! in The Milky Way that have been cataloged to date. The report provides the technical on how a groups of scientists at University of Hertfordshire in the UK. The report characterizes this project as being an application of big data technology by the school’s astronomers. IMHO, the team members who worked on this are stars in their own right.

Second, is a report entitled This World Map Shows Every Device Connected To The Internet by Pamela Engel, posted on September 14, 2014. John Matherly at Shodan (which desscribes itself on its home page as ” Shodan is the World’s First Search Engine for Internet-Connected Devices”). The article provides the steps taken to generate this incredible visualization. What it very limns is the geographical inequality of available online access. For example, the US and Europe have far more dense levels of connectivity than some other countries and even entire continents. As well, there is an inconsistent relationship between certain areas’ population density and the cumulative numbers of web-connected devices.

I very highly recommend either opening these features and their accompanying graphics in two separate browser tabs and then toggling between them or alternatively opening two browsers and re-sizing them so both images can be seen simultaneously on the same screen. I believe both of these visualizations are testaments to the ever-increasing imagination of scientists who can construct plan and construct them.

I wonder though what, if any, are the possible commonalities of the structures, densities, patterns of change, and mapping processes of the Milky Way and the Net? Do the astronomers and the Net’s cartographers have anything procedurally and/or scientifically to learn from each other’s efforts?

Conflating the messages and information of both of these graphics further made me think that they might present an updated interpretation of the classic line spoken by the visiting alien to Gort, his servant robot, of “Klaatu barada nikto” in the original 1951 version of the sci-fi classic The Day the Earth Stood Still. According to this article on Wikipedia, the author of the screenplay, Edmund North, is quoted as saying this meant “There’s hope for earth, if the scientists can be reached”. As I see it, by providing this more grand perspective, the alien visitor was trying to teach the people of Earth that their planet is part of a much larger universe and they must be responsible for their actions and consequences affecting the larger spheres. Here too, by virtue of the, well, astronomical effort and originality that went into these new maps, perhaps the scientists responsible for them, at least to some degree, appreciate that message.

Law Firms and High Tech Companies are Now Providing Training to Their Respective Clients

In an effort to remain competitive by providing new forms of services to their client bases, law firms and high tech companies are now presenting sophisticated training programs to some of their clients. This is an explicit effort of their behalves to learn more about their clients’ businesses as well as building potentially new revenues. There are valuable perhaps profitable lessons to be learned here for other competitors in their respective markets. Two very similar-themed reports about this emerging trend appeared in the business press during the past two days. I highly recommend a click-through and full read of both of them.

First, The Wall Street Journal carried a report on Monday, September 15, 2014 entitled Law Firm, Chase Bank Join Forces on Trainee Program by Jennifer Smith. (A subscription is required for the full text.) To briefly summarize it, the law firm of Morgan, Lewis & Bockius is increasing their use of “secondments” whereby an associate attorney is assigned to work in the legal department of a client for a set period of time. Law firms have engaged in this practice for number of years.

The latest innovation that Morgan, Lewis has added to this is that firm has joined with J.P.Morgan Chase, one of their clients, to assist in the training of several of the bank’s own new in-house lawyers. In effect, Chase’s new lawyers are given the same training that the law firm’s own new associates receive. Following two year’s experience at the bank, these lawyers then move over to the law firm full-time with third-year associate status. Once there, some of their assignments will still involve the bank.

Second, the next day, yesterday on September 16th, The New York Times published an article entitled Google Lends a Helping Hand to Madison Ave. on Digital Proficiency by Stuart Elliot on a somewhat similar program recently launched by Google with some of its key clients in Britain and the US. To quickly sum it up, this program does not involve the reassignment of staff members, but rather, Google is providing in-depth training for advertizing and new media companies to make the best use of the latest digital tools. They are calling this new initiative “Squared”, a reference to an exponential increase in power.

Other participating presenters include employees of Buzzfeed, Twitter, and other experts from the ad and media companies. Thus far, more than 300 employees of five companies named in the article have attended these sessions. The full text of this article provides all of the interesting details about Square’s syllabus and the nature of the presentations.

Simply stated, both the teachers and students in these competitive relationships stand to benefit and prosper from it. In the fast-changing world of e-commerce and online advertising, Square likewise permits an extensible and symbiotic relationship where competitors are helping each other to compete.

In both these stories, the additional benefits I foresee from these types of programs include:

  • Other industries seeing the merits in such programs and following their leads. Perhaps service industries accounting and management consulting could develop analogs.
  • The emergence of new businesses and career paths might develop to further facilitate and enhance such efforts.
  • The creation of additional paid internships, again on both sides of the relationship, to identify the best new talent in an industry.
  • The programs might prove to be scalable and thus involve increasing numbers of employees on both sides of these arrangements.
  • The possible granting of additional tax benefits or other financial incentives to further promote these these programs as a investment in increasing competition and any resulting revenue streams.

New Study About Taxi Ride Sharing and Its Implications for the Emergence of the “Sharing Economy”

Adding one of the more compelling scientific studies to the ongoing and rapidly developing saga of urban car ride-sharing services, the September 2, 2014 edition of The New York Times published a summary and analysis of a study of what would happen, as the titles states, If 2 New Yorkers Shared a Cab … , by Kenneth Chang and Joshua A. Kirsch. In the findings’ simplest terms, there would be a 40% reduction on the cab fleet and corresponding improvements in traffic flows, energy consumption and the environment.

The author of this fascinating study are Steven Strogatz*, a mathematics professor at Cornell, whose team included Carlo Ratti of MIT. This article contains links to their recently published paper, an accompanying graphic of the data points overlaid upon a street map of NYC, and a link to a site they have set established enabling anyone to peruse a massive database of taxi ride info.

This article also expertly explores:

  • The scientific methods used to obtain these results, balanced against the reality of the fact that New Yorkers are very reluctant to voluntarily share cab rides
  • How the recent introductions here of Uber and Lyft are impacting the economics and dynamics of the city’s taxi industry
  • Whether and how the possible introduction of self-driving cars might affect the study’s findings
  • The concerns of a scientist who is skeptical of the study’s conclusions

The day following day, on September 3rd, Strogatz and Ratti were interviewed about their report on the Brian Lehrer Show** on WNYC in New York. They covered more of the details concerning their methods, conclusions and predictions. But what really enlivened this show were the live calls from the listeners with remarkable stories of their cab rides in NYC as passengers and from an actual driver as they related to the prospect and realities of ride sharing. I highly recommend this 23 minute podcast entitled Should We Start Sharing Taxis? for these reports from the front lines of this story.

For additional original perspectives, commentary and insights into the emergence of the new sharing economy that I found to be quite relevant to this story, I further recommend the following three articles that were published during same week:

Will this sharing trend gain further traction in other sectors of the service economy? If so, what sectors and job types might be sucsceptible? If not, is this just a trend that will quickly run its course or perhaps morph into something more enduring?

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* Professor Strogatz has written a number of highly acclaimed books on science and math. Ten years ago I had the great pleasure of reading one of them entitled Sync: How Order Emerges From Chaos In the Universe, Nature, and Daily Life (Hyperion, 2004). This is a strikingly original work about how synchrony emerges from within a wide diversity of biological and environmental systems. I found his writing to be highly engaging and accessible about what otherwise would appear to be a highly complex topic for a general audience. He has done a masterful job here of explaining the concepts and examples with great clarity. I highly recommend it for any reader looking for something entirely new and different.

** X-ref to the August 1, 2014 post here entitled Discussion re: Faster Web Service, Media Mergers and Net Neutrality about another interesting segment of this show, including a link to its podcast.

Dogs and Water Together That Somehow Inspiring Creativity

What is it about the imagery of dogs and water that seems to inspire such diverse and highly creative ventures?

I recently saw Reservoir Dogs again on cable. This was one of Quentin Tarantino’s earlier films and a masterfully executed crime cinema classic. Highly recommended if you have never seen it before. (Nonetheless, be forewarned because it also contained some scenes of extreme violence.)

For an entirely different take on dogs and water containing scenes of extreme cuteness is a book entitled Underwater Dogs by Seth Cassel. His photography of dogs playing underwater, the subjects of his book, and his upcoming underwater photography projects were the subjects of an August 1, 2014 article on MNN.com (Mather Nature Network) entitled Jump in the Pool (and Giggle Uncontrollably) with ‘Underwater Dogs’. I dare you, I double dog dare you* not to burst out laughing when you see some of Cassel’s photos in this story. The article also contains links to Cassel’s Instagram and Facebook pages which I also recommend clicking through to for more of his work.

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*  This very scary threat was popularized in another film classic, Jean Shepherd’s Christmas Story when Flick was being challenged to do something quite cold and dangerous on his way to the Warren G. Harding School. In keeping right along with this post’s canine-inspired creativity, the film also contained a stealth attack by the Bumpus hounds living right next door as they stole the Ralphie’s family’s holiday turkey right off the kitchen table!

 

 

New Visual Perspectives on Tweeting, Movies and Life

Remember when birds were the only ones still tweeting? Well, not to twitter* away too much time on this point, but I highly recommend checking out a new visualization of nightingale’s and a canary’s vocalizations were posted on TheNextWeb.com in a brief post on August 21, 2014 entitled 3D Bird Sound Visualization is Electrifying. (The direct link to this appears in the text.) The title understates the 2:30 video created by a multimedia artist named Andy Thomas. IMHO, this is an extraordinarily beautiful visualization that transposes the mellifluous sounds of these birds singing into an animation of how this “look” to the artist. Furthermore, if you find this as entertaining and imaginative as I did, I further recommend a click-through and full perusal of the artist’s blog called Nature Remixed displaying a series of galleries of his beautiful “motion art” and other still-frame graphics. Be sure to scroll down on the home page for the technical details of how he make this creations.

(Looking at these pages also reminded me of the breathtakingly imaginative artwork of Roger Dean, particularly on the Rock Posters page of his website.**)

Fortunately, TheNextWeb.com published another highly original visualization just two days later on August 23rd, entitled The Colors of Motion is an Interactive Visualization of Movie Color. (Likewise, the direct link is in the text.) Here designer Charlie Clark has devised a means to display the color palettes of 27 well known films from the last 30 years or so. Clicking on any of the movie titles takes you to a screen where the “average color” of hundred of frames from the film have been analyzed by a methods developed by Clark. For instance, it always seemed to me that in The Matrix, there seemed to be a greenish tint to many scenes while in Avatar it appeared to be more of a blue-ish tint to much of it. Both films are part of this project. Thus, as you click through the sample frames you will see these hues change in some fascinating ways. Simply this has to be seen and explored first hand to fully appreciate just how clever this visualization is in examining this particular aesthetic element of many iconic films. Please also try a click-through to his full Charlie Clark website to enjoy a deep and wide display of his immense artistic talent.

I very much hope that the artist will apply this analysis to more films from the past, present and then in the future. I wonder how the vibrantly colored palette of this summer smash hit Guardians of the Galaxy would be parsed by this.

Finally, for another dramatically different visualization that is artistically sophisticated in its presentation, not about art per se, but rather, about the author’s life, I suggest checking out an article that was posted on Wired.com on August 27, 2014, entitled An Infographic Genius Plots Out Another Insanely Detailed Year of His Life by Joseph Flaherty. This concerns, as their creator has termed them “Annual Reports” in the form of multi-dimensional inforgraphic displays of nearly 100,000 data points recorded detail of designer Nicholas Felton’s life during 2013. He has been generating these productions since 2005 (all available on his personal website which is linked to within this story’s text). To say that this is very granular does not even begin to describe it. The details he has charted about seemingly everything he did during this year appears to go to an nearly quantum level never seen anywhere else before. With the rapid advancements in all manner of electronically recording personal data as well as the tools for analyzing and visualizing it, Felton talks about his incorporation of these means within the article.

Other people have been engaged in similar activities in recent years which has come to be known as “lifelogging“. (See also A Modest Proposal: Everyday Lifelogging by Charles Q. Choi, posted November 30, 2011 on ScientificAmerican.com.) Taking this sort of activity another step, hop, crawl and leap  forward also appeared in an article in the September 3, 2014 edition of The New York Times entitled Here, Ansel! Sit, Avedon! Apparently some of the participants have pursued this endeavor with dogged determination and tried to hog the spotlight, while others who were more reticent had to be brought out of their shell to get them to engage.
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* Yes, small “t”.
** Yes, many from Yes.

Applying MRI Technology to Determine the Effects of Movies and Music on Our Brains

By a very fortuitous coincidence on August 28, 2014, two articles appeared online in very different publications but with very similar facts and implications about using MRI technology to research the neurological effects of movies and music upon their audiences. Let’s, well, scan these features together and see what we find.

First, everyone loves watching movies and nowadays they can be viewed on screens everywhere in theaters, televisions, computers, mobile devices and gaming systems whenever it is convenient for the viewer. The work of a psychologist named Uri Hasson was reported on WIRED.com in a fascinating article by Greg Miller entitled How Movies Sychronize the Brains of an Audience. As reported here, has Hasson employed MRIs to scan viewers of the same scenes in a series of films from different genres. He recently presented his finding to a group of film industry professionals.

He was surprised to find that highly similar regions of the brain were showing specifically increased activity among the viewers of the clips of the same films, That is, discernible patterns emerged in the scans while viewing westerns, action movies, mysteries and so on. However, a comedy on cable produced a much lower level of Synchronicity among the test subjects. (There are two very informative graphics of the MRI’s outputs accompanying this story.) In effect, different films and different genres produced more highly correlated levels of such synchronicity than others. One Hollywood director is quoted here about his concerns that movie studies might soon be using MRIs to test movies at pre-release test screenings.

Furthermore, I think it would be interesting to know if Netflix might also be able to apply this research. This because starting in 2006 and concluding with the “Netflix Prize” being awarded in 2009, the company ran a contest challenging contestants to devise an algorithm that would improve their movie rating and recommendation system. That is, when subscribers order film A for viewing, Netflix will additionally recommend films B, C and D based on the reviews of the user base. So, would the added application of MRI data and analyses possibly improve the current recommendation algorithm being used at Netflix?

Second, is there actually anyone out there who still doesn’t get chills up and down their spine whenever they hear the opening bars of Born to Run? This likely happens even thought you have heard it 10,000 times before. Do you recall the first time you ever heard it come blasting out of the radio?

Using MRI technology in the context of researching why tunes have such a strongly evocative effect upon our brains, was another engaging report entitled Why Your Favorite Song Takes You Down Memory Lane posted on Medicalxpress.com. According to this story, the test subjects in a study were all played six songs (four were “iconic”, one was a favorites and one was unfamiliar), of five minutes each, from very different types of music. The scientists conducting this study found distinct patterns depending on whether that subject either liked or disliked a song and another pattern for the fave among the group.

Moreover, the fave increased activity in the hippocampus*, the brain region that controls memory and emotion, thus causing the resulting connection between music and memory.

I highly recommend clicking through and reading both of these articles together for all of the scientific details of how these studies were done and their conclusions were reached.

Also, for a terrific and thoroughly engaging detailed analysis of the neuroscience of music I also recommend This is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession by Daniel J. Levitin (Plume/Penguin, 2007)

December 19, 2014 Update:

The next set of analyses and enhancements to our cinematic experience can be found in a newly published book that explains the science of how movies affect our brains entitled Flicker: Your Brain on Movies (Oxford University Press, 2014), by Dr. Jeffrey Zacks. The author was interviewed during a fascinating segment of the December 18, 2014 broadcast of The Brian Lehrer Show on WYNC radio. Among other things, he spoke about why audiences cry during movies (even when the films are not very good), sometimes root for the villain, and move to duck out of the way when an object on the screen seems to be coming right at them such as the giant bolder rolling after Indiana Jones at the start of Raiders of the Lost Ark. Much of this is intentionally done by the filmmakers to manipulate audiences into heightened emotional responses to key events as they unfold on the big screen.

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* Isn’t that also what they call the place where hippos go to school?