In a previous article I shared the results of studies which found that cognitive processing of a text decreases as the amount of hyperlinks increase.
It will be helpful to take a few minutes reflecting on why this is. Why should the mere presence of links decrease our concentration of a web page? Nicholas Carr has answered this question in his book The Shallows, by giving attention to what happens in the brain when a reader is confronted with a hyperlink:
The need to evaluate links and make related navigational choices…requires constant mental coordination and decision making, distracting the brain from the work of interpreting text or other information. Whenever we, as readers, come upon a link, we have to pause, for at least a split second, to allow our prefrontal cortex to evaluate whether or not we should click on it. The redirection of our mental resources, from reading words to making judgments, may be imperceptible to us—our brains are quick—but it’s been shown to impeded comprehension and retention, particularly when it’s repeated frequently. As the executive functions of the prefrontal cortex kick in, our brains become not only exercised but overtaxed.
Don’t mistake where I’m coming from in sharing this. Hyperlinks are one of the most valuable aspects of the internet, and their capacity for helping us make connections is important. Yet we must also remember that the purpose of a hyperlink isn’t simply to reference other works like the footnotes in a book: a hyperlink actually propels us towards the new source. As Carr points out elsewhere in his book, the value that hyperlinks may serve as navigational tools cannot be separated from the distractions they cause.
Precisely because of this, we encourage students on the TSM to be proactive in minimizing the distractions caused by hyperlinks.
Again, this can easily be done by copying a webpage into a Word document and then removing the font that distinguishes the links. Or it can be done more simply by copying and pasting the entire document into notepad and from notepad into a Word document. It can also be done through printing (the subject of our next post). At a minimum, however, simply avoid clicking on links your first time through. Take a second read-through to click on links and read more. This is not unlike looking up and reading references in a printed book. Normally, we would read through an entire book before we look up all the references.