When I was a kid, I liked to read lying on my back on the bed with my legs stretched out and propped up against the wall. I was happy like that for hours at a time lost in the Land of Oz or whatever book(s) piqued my interest, and I especially enjoyed it on rainy afternoons when my mother couldn’t nag me about going outside to play.
My posture and location changed as I got older, but my ability to lose myself in stories – fiction, newspapers, research materials, etc. – never waned. Until recently.
In the past few years, I am regularly and easily distracted from what I’m reading. No matter how compelling the topic, I get twitchy by the third or fourth page of a long, magazine story. Books I ripped through in the past, sometimes staying up most of the night because I knew I wouldn’t sleep wondering what happens next, get set aside now long enough to be difficult to find when it occurs to me to pick them up again.
Even the books I once lingered over because the prose, poetry or ideas intrigued me are hard to stay with these days. I lose focus as my mind rat-a-tat-tats off the page to play in other fields.
I’ve been disturbed enough by this development to spend a good deal of time thinking about what the reasons might be – that is, when I don’t get distracted because extended contemplation, too, has become more difficult, although not as much as reading.
Poking around the internet and my library of books on aging has led me to dismiss the thought that getting old is a cause. And it’s not that my eyes tire or my contact lens prescription needs changing. They are regularly checked.
The phenomenon is definitely an attention deficit, but from what I’ve read (in short bursts), I’m not suffering old age ADHD, if there is such a thing. Instead, I have come to suspect that mind-flitting is connected with the staccato nature of media today.
As with other ills for which it takes the blame, the internet certainly contributes to this shortened attention span, and I’ll get to that. But I think its origins may be found as far back as the development of commercial radio in the early 20th century, continuing with television beginning in the late 1940s and accelerating ever since.
The nature of broadcast media requires the regular interruption of commercials. A TV viewer becomes immersed in a movie, drama, the latest news, an interview or following the ball down a field when he or she is jerked out of their concentration for a sales pitch or two or three.
Until the show returns, viewers are required to hold the plot in suspension while being distracted by a flurry of unrelated ideas. Continuity is lost and, sometimes, depth of interest.
When I first started working in television in 1971, there were about eight minutes of commercials per hour of programming. Each commercial, in those days, lasted at least 30 seconds and many were a minute long. Today, there are about 21 or 22 minutes of commercials in each hour, some as short as 10 seconds thereby cramming six or seven or more - each telling a different story - into a commercial break.
So the mind, in a space of a three-minute break – some are four minutes - is required not only to hold the plotline in abeyance, but to take in up to eight or ten different mini-stories until the program returns.
Nowadays, even if you record programs on a DVR and zap the commercials, you cannot avoid the animated promos for upcoming shows at the bottom of the screen which distract the eye, and they often cover up to half the screen including, sometimes, visual information important to understanding the story. Recently, I’ve seen product commercials inserted with these promos including audio that fights with the program dialogue. You can be sure this new practice will increase.
On cable news channels, there is the constant motion of the news crawl, the stock ticker and sometimes so many split screens that it’s hard to know which is meant to be the main source of information.
When the news ticker was an innovation, I heard tell of some people who hated the distraction so much they taped over the bottom of their screens. Those complaints have faded, so I suspect we have become inured to the constant movement.
Distractions are increased by magnitudes on the internet, and not by just the blinking ads we all despise and rocket ships blasting off from the middle of a page timed to cover the precise words I’m reading, or the pop-ups insisting I click to another page for a survey that won’t go away until I find the nearly-hidden close button.
In addition, an email notification often pops up while I’m reading, or a bell dings if I’ve set a reminder or two. And some pages, particularly on news websites, reload themselves unasked when the site is updated and a producer republishes causing me to lose my place in the copy I’m reading.
The most recent evil gimmick to mess with our minds online is a program used by a growing number of websites and blogs that pops up small advertisements related to any word the mouse pointer strays across. Some sites have so many of these embedded in a single story that moving the mouse away just causes more – and more – and more of them to pop up.
But the largest distraction is the nature and essence of the web itself as Nicholas Carr describes well in a remarkable story, Is Google Making Us Stupid? in the July/August issue of The Atlantic, which arrived just in time to help me think about all this:
“When the Net absorbs a medium, that medium is recreated in the Net’s image. It injects the medium’s content with hyperlinks, blinking ads, and other digital gewgaws, and it surrounds the content with the content of all the other media it has absorbed…The result is to scatter our attention and diffuse our attention.”
Mr. Carr is concerned that all these web distractions (along with, I would argue, the similar impediments to concentration on television) are reprogramming our brains, “remapping the neural circuitry” and changing the way we think.
“[Developmental psychologist Maryanne] Wolf", writes Carr, "worries that the style of reading promoted by the Net, a style that puts ‘efficiency’ and ‘immediacy’ above all else, may be weakening our capacity for the kind of deep reading that emerged when an earlier technology, the printing press, made long and complex works of prose commonplace.
“When we read online, she says, we tend to become ‘mere decoders of information.’ Our ability to interpret text, to make rich mental connections that form when we read deeply and without distraction, remains largely disengaged.”
Nicholas Carr and I aren’t the only ones worrying in our individual ways about what the distractions of modern life are doing to our brains and our ability to concentrate. The New York Times reported last week that “Some of the biggest technology firms, including Microsoft, Intel, Google and I.B.M., are banding together to fight information overload.”
“A typical information worker who sits at a computer all day turns to his e-mail program more than 50 times and uses instant messaging 77 times, according to one measure…[and] on average the worker also stops at 40 Web sites over the course of the day.
“The fractured attention comes at a cost. In the United States, more than $650 billion a year in productivity is lost because of unnecessary interruptions, predominately mundane matters, according to Basex. The firm says that a big chunk of that cost comes from the time it takes people to recover from an interruption and get back to work.” [emphasis added]
These reports and others confirm that I’m not alone in my concern about what electronic distractions may be doing to our brains and our minds. As Nicholas Carr concludes in the Atlantic:
“The kind of deep reading that a sequence of printed pages promotes is valuable not just for the knowledge we acquire from the author’s words but for the intellectual vibrations those words set off within our own minds.
“In the quiet spaces opened up by the sustained, undistracted reading of a book, or by any other act of contemplation, for that matter, we make our own associations, draw our own inferences and analogies, foster our own ideas. Deep reading, as Maryanne Wolf argues, is indistinguishable from deep thinking.
“If we lose those quiet spaces, or fill them up with ‘content,’ we will sacrifice something important not only in our selves but in our culture…
“That’s the essence of [Stanley] Kubrick’s dark prophecy [in 2001: A Space Odyssey]: as we come to rely on computers to mediate our understanding of the world, it is our own intelligence that flattens into artificial intelligence.”
This blog post was designed as a small and unscientific test of your, the reader's, attention span. It is purposely much longer than what even I usually write and I wonder how many of you made it this far. Or did you get twitchy part way through, skim over paragraphs, check out what else is on the page or click away to another site?
[At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Camille Koepnick Shaffer worries about what her husband's newest acquisition will mean to their lives in The Omen.]