Our brains, digital media and journalism

From the Nieman report The Digital Landscape: What’s Next for News? comes a few thoughts about our brains, the way we respond to digital media and what that might mean for journalism.

Ooh, shiny shiny
Russell Poldrack, a professor of psychology and neurobiology and director of the Imaging Research Center at the University of Texas at Austin, wrote a piece for Nieman about how we respond to novelty (think iPhones and ‘you’ve got mail’ messages) and how we learn. Here’s an excerpt:

There is a growing body of research showing that things that are hardest are what make us learn best. This concept is known as “desirable difficulties.” If something is too easy then we probably aren’t learning very much. We have more to find out as we determine just how widely this idea applies. But there is enough evidence already assembled to give us reason to rethink how learning takes place in our daily lives.

The finding of desirable difficulties poses a serious challenge to journalists because things that make people remember best are also things that people are likely to avoid because they are difficult.

As researchers learn more about how learning and memory work, there may be additional clues about how to maximize learning. But there are already some tricks that can be used. For example, information is often remembered better when presented multiple times, but only when those different times are spaced apart from one another. Thus, presenting several versions of an idea in different parts of a story could help improve retention.

If journalism is about learning—about taking in news and information and understanding its relevance to our lives—then what neuroscientists and brain researchers are finding out about the brain and its capacity to absorb information surely matters.

Keep it simple, step by step, and repeat

Clifford Nass, the Thomas M. Storke Professor at Stanford University in the Department of Communication, wrote about what happens to our ability to engage when we multitask online and gives practical advice on how to manage content to help readers.

The heavy media multitasker’s (HMM’s) inability to filter irrelevant information, even when it is labeled as irrelevant, is shocking. In one experiment people were asked to only pay attention to red rectangles and to ignore blue rectangles. While light media multitaskers (LMMs) were unaffected by the blue rectangles, no matter how many there were, the HMMs were consistently distracted by the blues: The more blue, the less attention they paid to the red rectangles.

With this inability to filter in mind, news stories and editorials must be highly focused. Filtering provides a sense of proportion that HMMs lack so secondary messages will tend to dilute the primary message. Also, readers will not distinguish between experts and nonexperts, even when the distinction is made clear in the story. For this reason, it is important to avoid using sources that are obviously unqualified to create balance. Finally, even engrossing stories are going to be competing with advertisements, e-mails, phone calls, Twitter and a host of other media streams since HMMs will be chronically seduced by the other: With HMMs, nothing grabs and sustains truly focused attention.

If one thinks of the brain as a set of filing cabinets, HMMs—the readers of today and especially tomorrow—have messier cabinets and have a harder time finding what they need. This inability of HMMs to manage short-term memory means that stories will be more effective if they take people step by step through an argument or time sequence because readers will get confused by interlocking content. On the other hand, the classic inverted pyramid will be very difficult for HMMs to follow because the interrelated content requires memory management and integration.

As HMMs switch from reading an article to consuming other media and then switch back—a very frequent occurrence—they are often influenced by intervening content. News articles are therefore going to require more recapitulations and reminders to help readers pick up where they left off. It will also help to ensure that the layout, font and other visual features of the article are radically different from the rest of the page, thereby reminding readers of the distinction between the story and all of the other streams that they continually encounter. Perhaps most ironic is that the juxtaposition of unrelated content, driven by a desire to satisfy HMMs, is going to make it harder for HMMs to understand the stories that they do read.

Processing print isn’t something the brain was built for

And here’s a bit from a conversation with Marcel Just,  the director of the Center for Cognitive Brain Imaging at Carnegie Mellon University, on the move from print to visual media.

Ludtke: As journalism moved onto television, news began to be conveyed in visual ways and this often led to what is referred to as a “if it bleeds, it leads” style of reporting.

Just: Processing print isn’t something the human brain was built for. The printed word is a human artifact. It’s very convenient and it’s worked very well for us for 5,000 years, but it’s an invention of human beings. By contrast Mother Nature has built into our brain our ability to see the visual world and interpret it. Even the spoken language is much more a given biologically than reading written language.

Ludtke: Does this mean that as we move out of the era of print and paper and into the digital era with more visual media, it’s going to be a more natural environment for humans to take in information than when it was the printed word?

Just: Yes, and it can be informative in a visual way. Now you can circumvent written language to a large extent. A lot of printed words are there to describe things that occur spatially. In many cases a picture is worth a thousand words. Now we can generate these pictures and graphics and we can convey them to other people very easily. I think it’s inevitable that visual media are going to become more important in conveying ideas and not just about raging fires.

Ludtke: Ideas?

Just: Ideas of physics and biology and politics and so on. [But] I think there’s a role for the printed word. I don’t think it’s going to go away.

The rest of the Nieman report is here.