My Incredible Shrinking Attention Span

I’m trying to read or reacquaint myself with about 30 books for an upcoming exam, and the process is confirming a suspicion that has troubled me the last six or so months.  My ability to concentrate on books, or even long articles, has gone AWOL.  I love to read; I NEED to read.  I am rarely caught anywhere – in any waiting room, line, or public transportation vehicle – without reading material.  If I am, I  will scrounge for a freebie or even buy something.  But it has been getting harder for me to get through books, especially with any meaningful retention.  Since other mid-40s friends have the same complaint, I worried that this is an aging thing.  How do I combat that?  But then I read this article in the NYT about Winifred Gallagher’s new book, Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life.  It got me thinking about, well, focus and attention.  I do most of my reading online anymore.  I almost never read a “real” newspaper, although I still read some wordy magazines (Harper’s, Atlantic Monthly, Bay Nature).  I read “newspapers” online.  I read blogs.  I read online summaries of articles before I decide to print, read and notate hard copies.  And since it’s hard on the eyes to read all that stuff online, I’ve become even more selective and merely skim postings that stretch too far across or down the page, or that have uncomfortably small print.

That’s what made me begin to wonder whether spending many hours a day on the computer (until January I worked as a statistical programmer for several years; it paid the rent and guaranteed even more hours in front of a monitor) and on the the internet is to blame for my Incredible Shrinking Attention Span.  Nicholas Carr wondered something like that too, in his much-Googled, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” (Atlantic Monthly, July/Aug 2008).

Over the past few years I’ve had an uncomfortable sense that someone, or something, has been tinkering with my brain, remapping the neural circuitry, reprogramming the memory.  My mind isn’t going—so far as I can tell—but it’s changing.  I’m not thinking the way I used to think.  I can feel it most strongly when I’m reading.  Immersing myself in a book or a lengthy article used to be easy.  My mind would get caught up in 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 often starts to drift after two or three pages.  I get fidgety, lose the thread, begin looking for something else to do.  I feel as if I’m always dragging my wayward brain back to the text.  The deep reading that used to come naturally has become a struggle.

Some have made a good case for the internet’s encouragement of nonlinear, “networked” thinking (see this post by Scott Carp, for example ), but Carr is concerned about the evolution away from “deep reading.”

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.

He quotes Richard Foreman’s vivid description of a generation of “‘pancake people’—spread wide and thin as we connect with that vast network of information accessed by the mere touch of a button.”

I think I want my analog brain back.

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