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.
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 U.S. adults, according to eMarketer, which tracks digital behavior. That's up from three hours in 2010.
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 email temptations that lurk on our gadgets — the bings and dings that interrupt "Call me Ishmael."