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5 ways our brains are changing in the digital age

December 11, 2010

I insisted on putting a lot of stuff in our book about media determinism as practiced by Marshall McLuhan and others. The reason for this (beyond my M.S. thesis adviser insisting on it), is to convince the audience that the web medium is radically changing the way we process information. In most of the book, we concentrate on the user behavior that is different between the web and print. This is intentional because we can measure the difference and we can write for the web to take advantage of what we know about this behavior. It’s much tougher to measure brain states and use this information in building information experiences.

But McLuahn and his followers (such as Fr. Walter Ong), also drew conclusions about the way our brains change when the  media we use change. For example, when we went from a manuscript culture to a book culture, we no longer had to orally remember whole pages of text without spaces in order to parse the meaning. We could visually focus on individual words and phrases, freeing up our memory for concepts and connections, and allowing for a level of abstract thought not seen since Aristotle. (The fact that Aristotle produced the Metaphysics and the Nicomachean Ethics as a series of orations makes him a freak of nature.)

The web is causing a lot of change in the way we think. It’s just hard for us to grasp the change because we’re in the middle of it. But if we can understand the change a little better, it will really help us get into the heads of our audience. If you can predict how your audience will process your information, you can make much better decisions about your content, both on and off your site. The following five ways our brains are changing in the digital age should help you create better content experiences for your audiences.

1. Tiny bits of text

One thing that is radically different about the web is the information chunks are much smaller, and getting smaller still. The short description or snippet that appears under the link in the search engine results page (SERP) gives you 150 characters to describe what the landing page is about. Tweets are 140 characters, and the best Twitter users keep them shorter still to allow for retweets without edits.

How much information can you cram in 140 characters? Not much. Our brains are getting in tune to this by focusing ever more on individual words, which is why hash tags are so important to successful tweeting. They automate what our brains do manually when they look for spaces between words and scan the characters in between. The trouble is, words in isolation can deceive.

Consider the word lead. I just saw an ad on my Facebook page promoting the Lead Tree. It initially confused me. Because I was thinking of the poisonous heavy metal, my first impression was an environmental advocacy site. The visual of a lead-colored tree probably sparked the initial interpretation. But it only created disquiet in my mind, so I sought a second interpretation. My second interpretation was a leadership training site. The tree metaphor makes some sense there because you grow skills one branch at a time. But the grammar of Lead Tree wasn’t right. If it was about leadership, it should have the word leadership in it. How can a static thing like a tree lead? Only after I stared at it for a while and noticed little bits of explanatory text did I realize it was about driving leads through the marketing pipeline.

Ambiguities like this drive us crazy on the Web. So our brains are developing new ways of disambiguating these tiny bits of text, determining the context, and then forming an interpretation. The trouble is, Twitter happens at the speed of the Autobahn, so these skills trigger quickly, meaning they need to take the lion’s share of our focus, relegating the longer, deeper thoughts to less prominence in our brains. The question is, what do these disambiguation processes do?

2. Context is king

Perhaps the most important thing the disambiguation process does is determine the context of the words. How do we do this? I’m sure there are lots of ways linguistic psychologists have identified. But the one I want to focus on is the task. We ask ourselves, “If I click this link, what does the site want me to do?” If it’s something we want to do, we click the link. If not, we don’t. If we click the link and the task doesn’t match our contextual interpretation, we bounce.

Determining the task is perhaps the quickest kind of disambiguation. It also lends itself to a quick trial (click) and error (bounce) process. This is why we focus on the verbs in our book. More than anything, verbs help users determine the context of the text. Of course, you still have problems like the lead example I use above, which can be either a noun or a verb. But verbs tend to be less ambiguous than nouns, which might be why we focus so heavily on the task when we attempt to parse tiny bits of text.

Another possible reason is we need to be so much more proactive in our information processing because so much info is coming at us so fast. In this environment, we will develop skills that help us understand information most efficiently. Task analysis is one such process.

3. Consider the source

The other primary process we use to disambiguate is the source. When we don’t know what a word or phrase might mean, we look at who is saying it. If we know they care about certain topics, we can rule out other possible topics that a word might refer to. I wish I was smart enough to know what part of the brain we devote to people as opposed to categories or species or other encyclopedic knowledge.  But it goes without saying that this part of the brain is drawing more of our neural activity at the expense of other parts.

4. It’s all about links

You can only express one thought at a time on Twitter, and you can’t get anything like the rationale or justification in the feeds. All you can do is post links and hash tags and point to other folks on Twitter. So links, hash tags and @ references have to tell the story for you.

Think about the way the brain works when on Twitter. A tweet is like an index card in a library. It only really makes sense when you go to the shelf and open the book it refers to. Just so, (except in rare cases like @rand), a tweet is only meaningful in the context of the page it refers to. So rather than parsing the meaning of words and phrases as discrete elements and putting it all together, our brains are withholding judgment until we land on the linked page. Put another way, in print a sentence, paragraph or page can be meaningful in and of itself. On Twitter in particular and on the Web in general, it is only meaningful in relationship to other content units in other parts of the Web.

If users are waiting to look at your pages and determine the  relevance of a link to the referring page, they look for connections between the two. They won’t waste time parsing your content if it is not obviously relevant to them. Demonstrating that relevance with clear visual cues is the first order of business in any web page.

5. Ever more visual

The hallmark of the trend from oral to print to web is ever more visual information processing. I often write about the tipping point when text didn’t need to be read out loud anymore because it contained spaces between words. I do this because it illustrates the change in the most compelling way. On the Web, because a page is rarely relevant or meaningful in isolation (I’d like to say never, but someone will give me a counterexample as soon as I do), we do a quick scan of the page we land on, look for words and phrases that connect the referring page to the landing page, and then make the determination of relevance.

This puts a huge burden on the parts of our brains that look for common patterns and make connections. Think of the matching game we used to play as kids. You have 10 pairs of cards arranged in a matrix as randomly as possible. After scanning the matrix, you turn them over to hide them, and draw cards to produce matches. The game was designed to help us develop our visual memory. All the symbols on the cards were color-coded pictures. Now think of the way Web pages are designed. If they aren’t as intuitive as the cards in the matching game, you will lose a portion of your visitors,  who bounce because they simply cannot make the determination of relevance with the visual cues you give them.

This rather unscientific list of cognitive processes needs a lot more study if we want to make it a rigorous scientific discipline. But it seems like a good starting place. And it does help us develop pages for the emerging behavior, assuming there are provable cognitive processes that trigger the behavior.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. December 13, 2010 4:35 pm

    Hi James,

    It’s one thing to say people read digital differently. It’s quite another to say reading digital differently is changing our brains. Steven Pinker and evolutionary psychologists say the opposite, “Experience does not revamp the basic information-processing capacities of the brain.” (See Mind Over Mass Media.)

    I think there is still value in your tips and your book–and even some value in media determinism–but it’s a big logical leap without enough warrant to say media changes our brains.

  2. December 13, 2010 5:19 pm

    Good Point Colleen,

    That’s why I do a lot of hedging at the end.

    “This rather unscientific list of cognitive processes needs a lot more study if we want to make it a rigorous scientific discipline. But it seems like a good starting place. And it does help us develop pages for the emerging behavior, assuming there are provable cognitive processes that trigger the behavior. ”

    It would be interesting to study brain states of people reading books versus Web experiences. This is tough to do, obviously. They haven’t invented the MRI machine that can look at brain states while people are doing their ordinary work. That’s why we’re careful not to jump to that conclusion in our book, as others have (Flowers, McLuhan, Ong, etc.)

    I don’t think it’s a logical leap, though. It’s a scientific one. We can in principle study this. We just can’t in practice do so with the scientific instruments we have.



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