“I don’t remember the last time I read a piece that combined scholarship with wit and tantalizing sequences of intellectual ‘peek-a-boos’ that keep the reader enthralled”
- Herb Adler, M.D. Ph.D.
It’s flattering, and way more effusive than I am used to, but that’s not why I cited it. I cited it because his phrase “…tantalizing sequences of intellectual ‘peek-a-boos’” makes me suspicious.
I think he is on to me.
You see, that's pretty much sums up how your brain processes information, and those initials after his name are a damned good indicator that he knows it.
So I'll tell you a secret. That’s why I write the way I do.
I’m not writing for you—I’m writing for your brain.
Let me explain.
Your adult brain weighs about three pounds. That is, on average, about 2% of your body weight. However, it consumes 20% of your energy.
Most of that energy is spent connecting neurons to one another, thereby connecting thoughts and ideas. Reading burns a lot of calories; so does sitting through a class. And you burn even more when you are trying to comprehend unfamiliar information.
Familiar information is easier to integrate because the neural links involved are already in place. Think of your brain as an enormous file cabinet, brimming with folders. If you already have a file folder for the category, it’s a simple task to slide any related information into it. No sweat.
But unfamiliar information is much harder to integrate. Your brain can’t stand random data. It has to make sense of it by comparing it to what you already know and discovering the relationships between the new information and the information already stored in your brain.
In other words, the first question your brain is trying to answer about incoming data is “So what?”
First your brain has to compare it to what it already has on file, then, on failing to find a simple match, it must then decide whether the new information is important enough to take the trouble of opening a new file. If your brain can’t answer the question “So what?” new information simply gets dumped in the trash – immediately forgotten.
But if it does seem important, the brain has to decide where the new file should fit into the existing system.
That’s a lot more work, so you burn a lot more calories. The brain runs exclusively on glucose – that’s high-test fuel – which is why we get the urge to consume sugary snacks when we’re working on the computer.
Thinking is hard work, so you get tired simply from reading or sitting in a classroom. The average time tolerance for sustained attention is about 20 minutes. The average college class is 50 minutes.
Your brain gives up well before the rest of your body does, but since it is controlling your emotional state, you feel fatigued even though you haven’t been doing anything more physical than sitting and reading or listening to a lecture.
So what does all this have to do with how I write for this blog?
There is a word in English that means “to capture and hold the attention.” Writing for the internet is all about capturing and holding your attention, and doing it fast.
It has to be fast. Because the average attention span in 2000 was 12 seconds. The average attention span today is just 8.25 seconds.
By way of comparison, the average attention span of a goldfish is 9 seconds.
That doesn’t mean what you think it means.
It doesn’t mean that people are dumber than goldfish. It means that people are getting smarter than previous generations. Because we now have generations raised on smart technology, we have a lot more practice than our parents and grandparents in absorbing and evaluating chunks of information.
That requires instant grasp of theme, scope, and importance across the vast terrain of Internet content. And anything the brain does a lot of, it learns to do faster and more efficiently.
Which means we are getting better at evaluating information based on smaller samples. Your average web page is 593 words. We read about 28% of them. We can scan 100 words in 4.4 seconds. This means we spend just under seven seconds assessing the average new website.
Not read, scan. We don’t read every word, we scan for significant clusters of words. When we read for information, we scan for concepts and themes (including visuals), rather than focus on individual words. (Reading for pleasure is a totally different system.)
So what is the word that means “to capture and hold the attention?”
The word is “entertain.” People confuse that word with “amusement”; there is a huge difference.
Entertainment is serious.
We entertain ideas. Ideas capture and hold our attention. To amuse means the polar opposite: to divert or distract, as in diversion. Completely unlike activities.
So I write in a style that slips information into your brain in the most efficient way possible. Your brain likes that and, not only does it not make you feel tired, but rewards you by releasing chemicals that make you feel great.
This is how it works:
To start with, my subject is the most important subject in the world. I am writing about you.
There is nothing more important to the brain than YOU. Your brain is constantly scanning at the subconscious level for anything that either enhances or threatens your survival. It’s so fine-tuned that it will pick up a mention of your name across a crowded, noisy, room—while you are in the middle of a conversation with someone else.
So my topic is that very thing your subconscious brain is already the most interested in.
Second, I am releasing this information in short, easily integrated bursts. There are no paragraphs longer than three sentences.
Each chunk of information slides into place with a minimum of fuss, making it easy for you to continue reading. After all, it’s just another three sentences – and then another three, and another - no sweat.
Third, the brain likes novelty, so I try to couch information in ways you might not have thought of before. It helps that I am a bit of a smartass.
And finally, there are those drugs I spoke of. Besides building neural nets, your brain manufactures its own neurochemicals. You may know the names of the more popular ones: serotonin, epinephrine, and dopamine.
Dopamine acts as a neurotransmitter and plays important roles in motivation, arousal, cognitive control, reinforcement, and reward.
To your brain, a reward is a stimulus it uses to modify your behavior. Your brain actually likes learning new stuff, so when you connect up a new neural pathway, it rewards you with a shot of dopamine, and that makes you feel good (this is sometimes called the Aha! moment).
What you reward is what you get more of. You’ve heard of adrenaline junkies? Same thing. The clinical name for adrenaline is epinephrine.
The same with serotonin. It's the neurotransmitter that maintains mood balance, fights depression and anxiety, and underlies general well-being. Ecstasy and LSD boost serotonin levels, which is why they are popular.
Your brain, the drug dealer.
So that’s it. I write the way I do to fit the way your brain naturally takes in information.
(1) Write about something the brain is predisposed to pay attention to.
(2) Give information in sequential, easily integrated chunks.
(3) Mix in a little novelty and humor at regular intervals to keep things interesting.
(4) Organize the flow of ideas to make it easy for the reader to make new connections in a way that the brain will reward you with a shot of happy juice.
And you will notice that at no time did I “dumb down” anything.
And you just read 1300 words.