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Online skimming habits alter print-reading abilities

WASHINGTON — Claire Handscombe has a commitment problem online. Like a lot of Web surfers, she clicks on links posted on social networks, reads a few sentences, looks for exciting words, and then grows restless, scampering off to the next page she probably won’t commit to.

‘‘I give it a few seconds — not even minutes — and then I’m moving again,’’ says Handscombe, a 35-year-old graduate student in creative writing at American University.

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But it’s not just online anymore. She finds herself behaving the same way with a novel.

‘‘It’s like your eyes are passing over the words but you’re not taking in what they say,’’ she confessed. ‘‘When I realize what’s happening, I have to go back and read again and again.’’

To cognitive neuroscientists, Handscombe’s experience is the subject of great fascination and growing alarm. Humans, they warn, seem to be developing digital brains with new circuits for skimming through the torrent of information online. This alternative way of reading is competing with traditional deep reading circuitry developed over several millennia.

‘‘I worry that the superficial way we read during the day is affecting us when we have to read with more in-depth processing,’’ said Maryanne Wolf, a Tufts University cognitive neuroscientist and the author of ‘‘Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain.’’

If the rise of nonstop cable TV news gave the world a culture of sound bites, the Internet, Wolf said, is bringing about an eye byte culture. Time spent online, on desktop and mobile devices, was expected to top five hours per day in 2013 for US adults, according to eMarketer, which tracks digital behavior. That’s up from three hours in 2010.

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Word lovers and scientists have called for a ‘‘slow reading’’ movement, taking a branding cue from the ‘‘slow food’’ movement. They are battling not just cursory sentence galloping but the constant social network and e-mail temptations that lurk on our gadgets, the bings and dings that interrupt ‘‘Call me Ishmael.’’

Researchers are working to get a clearer sense of the differences between online and print reading — comprehension, for starters, seems better with paper — and are grappling with what these differences could mean not only for enjoying the latest Pat Conroy novel, but also for understanding difficult material at work and school. There is concern that young children’s affinity and often mastery of their parents’ devices could stunt the development of deep reading skills.

The brain is the innocent bystander in this new world. It just reflects how we live.

‘‘The brain is plastic its whole life span,’’ Wolf said. ‘‘The brain is constantly adapting.’’

Wolf, one of the world’s foremost experts on the study of reading, was startled last year to discover her brain was apparently adapting, too. After a day of scrolling through the Web and hundreds of e-mails, she sat down one evening to read Hermann Hesse’s ‘‘The Glass Bead Game.’’

‘‘I couldn’t do it,’’ she said. ‘‘It was torture getting through the first page. I couldn’t force myself to slow down so that I wasn’t skimming, picking out key words, organizing my eye movements to generate the most information at the highest speed. I was so disgusted with myself.’’

There are no genes for reading like there are for language or vision. But spurred by the emergence of Egyptian hieroglyphics, the Phoenician alphabet, Chinese paper, and, finally, the Gutenberg press, the brain has adapted to read.

Before the Internet, the brain read mostly in linear ways: one page led to the next page, and so on. There might be pictures mixed in with the text, but there didn’t tend to be many distractions.

Reading in print even gave us a remarkable ability to remember where key information was in a book simply by the layout, researchers said. We’d know a protagonist died on the page with the two long paragraphs after the page with all that dialogue.

The Internet is different. With so much information, hyperlinked text, videos alongside words, and interactivity everywhere, our brains form shortcuts to deal with it all — scanning, searching for key words, scrolling up and down quickly.

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