Trying to spark some critical thinking? It may be a good idea to forego digital media.
The medium could be hindering your cognitive ability to think and analyze in the abstract, according to a new study from Dartmouth College. On the plus side, using laptops, smartphones or tablets for reading could help in the memorization of more concrete information.
With more than 300 participants ranging in ages from 20 to 24, the assessment consisted of four studies. One had subjects read a David Sedaris short story, another group read it through digital media and the other in print. This was followed by a quiz testing concrete and critical understanding. Another group read information on fictitious Japanese cars, some digitally and others in print, and were also quizzed after.
The group that read Sedaris in print had better recall of more abstract information while the digital readers proved to remember more specific details. The same proved true for the group that read about cars when asked which was the more superior model. Roughly 66% of print readers gave the right answer compared to 43% of digital readers.
It is not the first time scientists have questioned the impact digital consumption has on the mind’s functionality. The PEW Research Center, for example, released a study describing how digital tools impacted kid’s writing skills and how they learn. A study conducted by UCLA’s Children's Digital Media Center also looked into the issue, finding that as technology use rose in popularity, critical thinking declined.
“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," said Dartmouth study author Geoff Kaufman, an assistant professor at the Human-Computer Interaction Institute at Carnegie Mellon University, in a press release.
As Mary Flanagan—Sherman Fairchild distinguished professor in digital humanities at Dartmouth and founding director of Tiltfactor—points out, understanding digital media’s impact could also help the development of tech tools of the future.
"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," she said.
In the meantime, it may be a good idea to invest in a good printer to get those PDFs in hand and buy a few more physical books to keep your abstract mind sharp.
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