Sunday, December 18, 2011

Not From Concentrate

Nicholas Carr:
I'd sit down with a book, or a long article, and after a couple of pages my brain wanted to do what it does when I'm online: check e-mail, click on links, do some Googling, hop from page to page.
Carr's inability to concentrate led him to do some research and his subsequent article in The Atlantic - "Is Google Making Us Stupid?" - was expanded into a book: The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains.

Carr's problems resonated strongly with me, as my own battles to focus have grown worse in recent years. Near the beginning of The Shallows, he writes:
I used to find it easy to immerse myself in a book or a lengthy article. My mind would get caught up in the twists of the narrative or the turns of the argument, and I'd spend hours strolling through long stretches of prose. That's rarely the case anymore. Now my concentration starts to drift after a page or two. I get fidgety, lose the thread, begin looking for something else to do. I feel like I'm always dragging my wayward brain back to the text. The deep reading that used to come naturally has become a struggle.
Two of Carr's friends admit to similar troubles. Bruce Friedman says his thinking has taken on a "staccato" quality:
I now have almost totally lost the ability to read and absorb a longish article on the web or in print. I can't read War and Peace anymore. I've lost the ability to do that. Even a blog post of more than three or four paragraphs is too much to absorb. I skim it.
Scott Karp was a lit major and a voracious reader in college, but he confesses that he has stopped reading books of any kind:
What happened? What if I do all my reading on the web not so much because the way I read had changed, i.e., I'm just seeking convenience, but because the way I THINK has changed?
Carr believes that the Internet has changed the way we read and process information. He cites studies that show the constant (and seemingly natural) interruptions of being online - of checking email, of doing a web search, clicking from hyperlink to hyperlink - has actually led to a re-wiring of our brains, making it maddeningly hard to, for example, lose ourselves in a book.

Recently, I was sitting outside with the dogs. It was a sunny day, and I had several hours of free time. I took a book outside, set up a chair on the patio and began reading. But every quarter-page or so, I would stop reading and look around the yard. I could not concentrate for an extended period of time. I had to actively resist getting up and going back inside to my desk/computer. There was no reason to do so; I wasn't waiting for any mail. And when I was reading, my eyes were often trying to skip ahead to the next paragraph. [This is in addition to my general fatigue when reading, the almost immediate watery eyes and long strings of yawns. But that is other subject for another day.]
Carr, to NPR:
Neuroscientists and psychologists have discovered that, even as adults, our brains are ... very malleable, they adapt at the cellular level to whatever we happen to be doing. And so the more time we spend surfing, and skimming, and scanning ... the more adept we become at that mode of thinking.
And presumably, that means we get worse at concentrating. The Shallows cites studies indicating that online reading yields lower comprehension than reading from a printed page.

Carr argues that as we hop from webpage to webpage, we lose our ability to employ a "slower, more contemplative mode of thought".

Chapter Four of The Shallows is both a short (but extraordinary) history, and a love letter to the act, of reading. Carr notes that developing the mental discipline to concentrate intently on a book was not easy.
The natural state of the human brain, like that of the brains of most of our relatives in the animal kingdom, is one of distractedness. Our predisposition is to shift our gaze, and hence our attention, from one object to another, to be aware of as much of what's going on around us as possible. ... Our fast-paced, reflexive skills in focus were once crucial to our survival. ...

To read a book was to practice an unnatural process of thought ... [Readers] had to train their brains to ignore everything else going on around them, to resist the urge to let their focus sip from one sensory cue to another. ... "The ability to focus on a single task, relatively uninterrupted," writes Vaughan Bell, a research psychologist at King's College London, represents a "strange anomaly in the history of our psychological development."
If the internet is returning us to our "natural state of distractedness"*, if prolonged, solitary thought - the act of "deep reading" - is merely an odd behavioural blip on the evolutionary timeline, then why is our inability to read more than two pages in a book so alarming? If the brain can forge new connections and adapt to new circumstances nearly on instantaneously - and the examples Carr gives of this are fascinating - is it simply a matter of retraining our brains to concentrate? Or does the ubiquity of computers in our life now make that an unconquerable hurdle?

* - A 2009 article in Discover magazine reported that the average mind wanders roughly 13% of the time, "which would be a substantial failure of control if not necessary".

I look forward to seeing if and how Carr answers these questions.

The distractions of the modern age are a popular topic. In addition to Carr's book, I have seen references to Maggie Jackson's Distracted: The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age (2008) and Winifred Gallagher's Rapt: Attention of the Focused Life (2009).

And there must be a connection between these ideas/thoughts/books and David Foster Wallace's theme of boredom and the hard and constant work involved in paying attention, which I hope to see more clearly as I read on.


johngoldfine said...

Well, I read the first three-fourths of this and then, ahem, skimmed quickly through the I pretty much do all the time these days.

I have piled-up stacks and heaps of books I know I want to read, or at least an earlier edition of me would have, but the heaps never get much smaller. I'm on a 7-hour transatlantic flight in a few days, then away from computers for a week, then on a flight home--and I expect I'll get reacquainted with concentration and books somewhere along in there.

allan said...

I read better on planes and trains - since there is no opportunity to get up and go check email. But I might stop reading after 30 or 45 minutes - the concentration muscle needs exercising or it atrophies.

Gareth said...

Immediately after reading your piece - which I can certainly identify with - I read an obit of Vaclav Havel, and was amused by the fact that one of his key plays is entitled The Increased Difficulty of Concentration.