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Connecting the dots with Baroness Susan Greenfield

Photo: Matt Scott

One of the reasons we launched Delayed Gratification was because we believe it’s become necessary to slow down both the production and the consumption of news. The internet is great at telling us what’s happening right now, but it’s not so good at providing depth and perspective. Printed news is slower and quieter, and an opportunity for both journalists and readers to reflect on news events and consider their longer-term impact.

In her new book Mind ChangeHow Digital Technologies Are Leaving Their Mark On Our Brains, Oxford neuroscientist Baroness Greenfield argues that our reliance on screens is rewiring our brain – and the internet is changing the way we comprehend what’s happening in the world. We spoke to her about the differences between consuming news in print and consuming it online.

“It’s important to differentiate information from knowledge,” Baroness Greenfield says. “Information is just giving someone a lot of dots. Knowledge is how you see one fact in terms of something else – how you join it up.”

The endless deluge of information found online provides us with infinite dots and, as Greenfield puts it, “a temptation to get carried away from one fact to another – like a drunk going from lamp post to lamp post.” But for real knowledge, she explains, you have to join the dots up and find the connections that others may not see.

Connecting dots of information requires reflection, and reading from paper gives us more time to do that. “It’s easier to put a book down in your lap, stare at a wall and think ‘this means that, and that means that’,” Greenfield says. “That’s harder to do when your fingers are itching to press the next button and in a second you know you’ll get a new display.” While a printed page carries a contained message, on a website there are numerous hyperlinks to distract us and tempt us to “stray in many different directions”.

The simple act of holding a book or magazine makes a difference, according to Greenfield. She cites the work of Norwegian academic Anne Mangen who wrote about the ‘haptic sense’: “The sense of touch enforces what is being processed in your brain as you’re fingering the pages and turning them,” she says. It’s also easier to fully comprehend printed pages than web pages, she argues, because you’re more likely to read at your own pace. Onscreen reading tends to involve more scanning and “the tendency to skip around, or to have powerful audiovisuals that are distracting.”

If we’re going to follow Greenfield’s advice, you should print this blog post, read it in your own time, and let the message sink in slowly. Alternatively, click here for some distraction. Or, OMG, kittens!

A slower, more reflective type of journalism”
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Jam-packed with information... a counterpoint to the speedy news feeds we've grown accustomed to”
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Quality, intelligence and inspiration: the trilogy that drives the makers of Delayed Gratification”
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Refreshing... parries the rush of 24-hour news with 'slow journalism'”
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