People whose jobs require them to think abstractly might want to lessen their time using laptops or tablets after a new study found that such activities may be forcing them to become concrete thinkers instead.

Researchers at Dartmouth College and the Carnegie Mellon University examined how reading stories in print differs from reading them on a laptop. They wanted to find out whether the human brain has evolved enough to the point where information obtained through a digital device is sufficient to elicit a unique mindset or pattern of processing.

For their work, the researchers asked 300 individuals, between the ages of 20 and 24, to read a story given to them both in print and digital versions. The team made sure that the reading material was published using the same print size and format for both media.

The volunteers were also asked to complete a Behavior Identification Form (BIF), which provided them with 25 items corresponding to different activities such as making a list. They were to choose whether an item pertains to high-level and abstract thinking or low-level and concrete thinking.

According to study co-author Geoff Kaufman, the BIF is often used to measure a person's natural inclinations or measure his or her temporary choices that are influenced by certain context or situations. He said that they used the form in the latter sense.

After the experiment, the researchers discovered that those who read the print version of the story were able to score higher on the abstract questions than those who read the digital version.

Volunteers who read the digital version of the story, however, were able to record a higher score on the concrete questions than those who read it on print.

While the researchers admit that it might be too early to say for certain that digital media influences how the human brain is able to process information in other contexts, they do note that using the medium could result in a cognitive evolution where people become less likely to think abstractly as a default.

Kaufman pointed out that if their conjecture proves to be correct, it would mean that as people spend more time using their laptops or tablets, the more they could become inclined to having a concrete-focused mindset.

The findings of the study are being presented during the ACM Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems this month.

Photo: Kevin Jarrett | Flickr 

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