Digital tunnel vision
Are digital screens making us lose our ability to think more deeply?Reuters

A research paper has determined that when it comes to looking at the "big picture", the human brain is more capable of inferring broader ideas and themes from words printed on paper than those appearing on a digital screen.

Between smartphones, work desktops, tablets and laptops, sometimes the only time we are ever really away from a digital screen is when your head hits a pillow. As a result of these ubiquitous glowing screens, two professors from Carnegie Mellon University and Dartmouth College set out to question whether people are affected by our digital habits. Their unnerving conclusion suggests that the AMOLEDs and LCDs of this world actually cause their readers to enter a form of tunnel vision that effectively hampers their mental ability to think 'outside the box'.

Professors Geoff Kaufman and Mary Flanagan conducted a series of tests, documented in a recent research paper. The tests compared various everyday screen-based tech − including a tablet (an iPad 2) and a laptop screen/monitor − with text printed on ordinary paper. The pair's tests were designed to examine the possible differences in cognitive patterns between "digital and non-digital platforms."

A group of 77 subjects were tasked with various quizzes that involved problem solving and basic literary analysis. The results across four different tests all pointed to the same conclusion − people are more likely to consider abstract ideas (or, for want of a better phrase, read between the lines) on paper. On the other hand, the research seems to show that passages displayed on a screen are analysed by the human brain in a mostly "factual" capacity; possibly as a result of lazy habits that digital screens inspire, such as "skimming" and "quick-scanning".

"Digital screens almost seem to create a sort of tunnel vision where you're focusing on just the information you're getting this moment, not the broader context," Kaufman told The Washington Post. "On the iPad, they seemed not to focus or show consideration for the long-term effects of their decisions. And they just lost the game much more often."

As an example, one experiment involved a surprise exam based on a short story by author David Sedaris. A PDF and paper version was then split between two sample groups who were then subjected to a surprise mock exam consisting of 24 multiple-choice questions.

The questions were split to gauge the participants' "memory of specific details presented in the narrative", but also their "understanding of higher-level inferences that the author intended readers to glean from the story".

Kaufman and Flanagan note that a pattern emerged that saw the digital guinea pigs score higher on memory-based, factual questions, while the traditional paper-based subjects "exhibited higher scores on the inference items".

Another lab test asked the participants to judge which vehicle was better from a specification list for two separate cars, with one being objectively superior. When faced with an "information overload", the non-digital half again prevailed, with 66% choosing the correct car, while only 43% of the laptop users chose the right answer.

Should we abandon our screens?

The researchers stress in the paper that their research model took into account the possible differences between the two platforms by keeping the font-size and layout the same for both printed and digital text. They also point out that the correlation across all tests that a possible "lack of familiarity with mobile devices" would not be enough to sway the results.

So does this mean we should abandon our screens immediately? Kaufman seems to think this would be a bit drastic, but did say how his own habits could benefit those looking to avoid digital-blinkers.

"I spend probably three-fourths of my waking hours per day behind a screen," he said. "If I catch myself reading a journal article in a PDF, and I start to get stuck on the details of the methodology, I'll just go ahead and print it out."

For those rushing out to scrap their iPads, Chromebooks and Android smartphones, you can at least take some solace in the fact that scientists are also making use of technology to actually improve the human mind's capacity to learn. Although if that doesn't work, we may just need to call it a day and hope new brain-like neural network prototypes can replace our withering and warped grey matter.