File /Humanist.vol22.txt, message 709

From: Humanist Discussion Group <>
Date: Thu, 30 Apr 2009 05:25:16 +0000 (GMT)
Subject: [Humanist]  22.725 can't concentrate?

                 Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 22, No. 725.
         Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
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        Date: Wed, 29 Apr 2009 16:15:53 -0300
        From: renata lemos <>
        Subject: Digital life eroding capacity to concentrate

Why can't we concentrate?

Twitter and e-mail aren't making us stupider, but they are making us
more distracted. A new book explains why learning to focus is the key to
living better.

By Laura Miller

Apr. 29, 2009 |

Here's a fail-safe topic when making conversation with everyone from cab
drivers to grad students to cousins in the construction trade: Mention
the fact that you're finding it harder and harder to concentrate lately.
The complaint appears to be universal, yet everyone blames it on some
personal factor: having a baby, starting a new job, turning 50, having
to use a Blackberry for work, getting on Facebook, and so on. Even more
pervasive than Betty Friedan's famous "problem that has no name," this
creeping distractibility and the technology that presumably causes it
has inspired such cris de coeur as Nicholas Carr's much-discussed "Is
Google Making Us Stupid?" essay for the Atlantic Monthly and diatribes
like "The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young
Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future," a book published last year by
Mark Bauerlein.

You don't have to agree that "we" are getting stupider, or that today's
youth are going to hell in a handbasket (by gum!) to mourn the withering
away of the ability to think about one thing for a prolonged period of
time. Carr (whose argument was grievously mislabeled by the Atlantic's
headline writers as a salvo against the ubiquitous search engine)
reported feeling the change "most strongly" while he was reading.
"Immersing myself in a book or a lengthy article used to be easy," he
wrote. "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." For my own part, I now find it challenging to sit still on my
sofa through the length of a feature film. The urge to, for example,
jump up and check the IMDB filmography of a supporting actor is
well-nigh irresistible, and once I'm at the computer, why not check
e-mail? Most of the time, I'll wind up pausing the DVD player before the
end of the movie and telling myself I'll watch the rest tomorrow.

This is no mere Luddite's lament. A couple of years ago a craze for
"full screen mode" writing software like WriteSpace and WriteRoom swept
through the Web's various digital communities devoted to productivity
tips and tricks favored by technology workers. These applications reduce
a computer's display to a simple black screen with a column of text
running down the middle. My colleague Rebecca Traister wrote recently of
her love affair with Freedom, a program that locks her computer off the
Internet for a preset block of time so she can "get some goddamn work
done," a desperate measure she characterized as a bid to "protect me
from myself."

What this commonplace crisis comes down to is our inability to control
our own minds. You may, like Traister, need to buckle down and write, or
you may, like Carr, pine for the deeply engaged style of reading we
bring to books and New Yorker profiles. You may, like me, realize that
your evening will be more enjoyable and more enriching if you commit to
the full 110 minutes of "Children of Men" instead of obsessively
checking out your friends' Facebook updates or surveying borderline
illiterate reader reviews -- or, for that matter, browsing through the
"Seinfeld" reruns in your Tivo Suggestions queue. In many cases, the
thing we wish we would do is not only more interesting but ultimately
more fun than the things we do instead, and yet it seems to require a
Herculean effort to make ourselves do it.

What to do? For most people, bailing on the Web or e-mail or cellphones
isn't even feasible, let alone practical or ultimately desirable. (I
shudder at the thought of living without my beloved Tivo.) Besides,
modern life really isn't making us stupider: IQ tests have to be
regularly updated to make them harder; otherwise the average score would
have climbed 3 percent per decade since the early 1930s. (The average
score is supposed to remain at a constant 100 points.) And IQ measures
problem-solving ability, rather than sheer data retained, which has
grown even faster over the same interval. Each of us knows many more
people and facts than our counterparts of 100 years ago; it's just that
the importance of those people and facts remains somewhat uncertain.
Knowing a little bit about Lindsay Lohan and Simon Cowell (two people I
recognize despite having no active interest in either one) can't really
be equated with knowing a bit about Marie Curie or Lord Mountbatten. We
have more information, but it isn't necessarily more valuable

Winifred Gallagher's new book, "Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life"
argues that it's high time we take more deliberate control of this
stuff. "The skillful management of attention," she writes, "is the sine
qua non of the good life and the key to improving virtually every aspect
of your experience, from mood to productivity to relationships." Because
we can only attend to a tiny portion of the sensory cacophony around us,
the elements we choose to focus on -- the very stuff of our reality --
is a creation, adeptly edited, providing us with a workable but highly
selective version of the world and our own existence. Your very self,
"stored in your memory," is the product of what you pay attention to,
since you can't remember what you never noticed to begin with.

Gallagher came to appreciate this while fighting "a particularly nasty,
fairly advanced" form of cancer. Determined not to let her illness
"monopolize" her attention, she made a conscious choice to look "toward
whatever seemed meaningful, productive, or energizing and away from the
destructive, or dispiriting." Her experience of the world was
transformed. This revelation naturally led her to wonder why she'd had
to exert herself to do what made her feel better. Why didn't she turn to
it as naturally as a thirsty woman turns to a glass of ice water? Why do
we reflexively award more attention to negative or toxic phenomena like
disasters and insults, while neglecting to credit small pleasures and
compliments with the significance they deserve?

A good part of "Rapt" explores this puzzle, identifying both biological
and cultural causes for our sometimes self-defeating habits. The book
belongs to a school of nonfiction -- Malcolm Gladwell's "The Tipping
Point" is the model -- that aims to walk the line between social science
and self-help. Despite the title, disappointingly little of "Rapt" is
concerned with the state Gallagher describes as "completely absorbed,
engrossed, fascinated, perhaps even 'carried away,'" that is, precisely
the experience Carr thinks is becoming ever more inaccessible.
Ironically, for a book about focusing, "Rapt" can be frustratingly
scattered, self-contradicting and platitudinous; do we really need more
hand-wringing about families who don't have dinner together or reheated
summaries of scientific studies demonstrating the power of positive

Still, Gallagher deserves credit for calling our attention to attention
itself, specifically to the way it works neurologically. In essence,
attention is the faculty by which the mind selects and then zeroes in on
the most "salient" aspect of any situation. The problem is that the
brain is not a unified whole, but a collection of "systems" that often
come into conflict with each other. When that happens, the more
primitive, stimulus-driven, unconscious systems (the "reactive" and
"behavioral" components of our brains) will usually override the
consciously controlled "reflective" mind.

There are excellent reasons for this. In the conditions under which
humanity evolved, threats had the greatest salience; individuals who
spotted and eluded dangers before they went chasing after rewards tended
to live long enough to pass on their traits to future generations. As a
result, we inherited from our distant ancestors the tendency to pay
greater attention to the unpleasant and troublesome elements of our
surroundings, even when those elements have evolved from real menaces,
like a crocodile in the reeds, to largely insignificant ones like nasty
anonymous postings in a Web discussion.

Likewise, our interest is grabbed by movement, bright colors, loud
noises and novelty -- all qualities associated with potential meals or
threats in a natural setting; we are hard-wired to like the shiny. The
attention we bring to bear on less exciting objects and activities,
where the payoff may be long-term rather than immediate, requires a
conscious choice. This is the kind of attention that opens into complex,
nuanced and creative thought, but it tends to get swamped by the more
urgent demands of the reactive system unless we exert ourselves to
overcome our instincts. The reflective system flourishes best when the
environment is relatively free of bells and whistles screaming
"Delicious fruit up here!" or "Large animal approaching over there!"

The conditions conducive to deep thought have become increasingly rare
in our highly mediated lives. When the physical limitations on print and
broadcast media kept the number of competitors for our attention
relatively few, some candidates could afford to appeal to our reflective
side. Now we live in an attention economy, where the most in-demand
commodity is "eyeballs." As more options crowd the menu, direct appeals
to the reactive mind in the form of bright colors or allusions to sex,
aggression, tasty foods and so on, take over.

The machinations of late capitalism aren't the only things driving the
incessant pinging on our reactive attention systems, either. If you're
like most people, you will keep checking for new e-mail despite the
unresolved messages that await in your inbox. The already-read messages
may even deal with urgent matters like an impatient question from your
boss or appealing subjects like possible vacation rentals, yet there's
something lackluster about them compared to what might be wending its
way to you over the Internet right this minute. Despite the fact that
the incoming messages are probably not any more compelling than the ones
you've already received, they're more attention-grabbing simply by
virtue of being new. When Carr complains of the compulsion to skim and
move on that possesses readers of online media, a major culprit is this
instinct-driven craving for the novelties that lurk a mere mouse-click

The fact that sensationalism sells is hardly news, but less well-known
is the fact that a constant diet of reactive-system stimuli has the
potential to alter our very brains. The plasticity of the brain,
scientists concur, is much greater than was once thought. New
brain-imaging technologies have demonstrated that people consistently
called upon to use one aspect of their mental toolbox -- the famously
well-oriented London cabbies, for example -- show enhanced blood flow to
and development of those parts of the brain devoted to, say, spatial
cognition. In "The Overflowing Brain: Information Overload and the
Limits of Working Memory," Torkel Klingberg, a Swedish professor of
cognitive neuroscience, argues that careful management and training of
our working memory (which deals with immediate tasks and the information
pertaining to them) can increase its capacity -- that your data-crammed
noggin can essentially build itself an annex.

But while it's one thing to accommodate more information, it's another
to engage with it fundamentally, in a way that allows us to perceive
underlying patterns and to take concepts apart so that we can put them
back together in new and constructive ways. The early human who was
constantly fending off leopards or plucking low-hanging mangoes never
got around to figuring out how to build a house. Because leopards and
mangoes were for the most part relatively few and far between, most of
our ancestors found it easier to summon the kind of attention conducive
to completing projects that, in the long term, make life measurably
better. Ironically, while immediate threats and fleeting treats are
comparatively much rarer in our complex social world, the attention
system designed to deal with them has been kept on perpetual alert by
both design and happenstance.

As long as we remain only dimly aware of the dueling attention systems
within us, the reactive will continue to win out over the reflective.
We'll focus on discussion-board trolls, dancing refinancing ads,
Hollywood gossip and tweets rather than on that enlightening but lengthy
article about the economy or the novel or film that has the potential to
ravish our souls. Tracking the shiny is so much easier than digging for
gold! Over time, our brains will adapt themselves to these activities
and find it more and more difficult to switch gears. Gallagher's
exhortations to scrutinize and redirect our attention could not be more
timely, but actually accomplishing such a feat increasingly feels beyond
our control. I can't speak personally to the effectiveness of
meditation, Gallagher's recommended remedy for chronic distraction, but
the effectiveness of meditative practices (religious or secular) in
reshaping the brain have also been abundantly demonstrated.

Knee-jerk Internet boosters like to argue that the old ways of thinking
are both obsolete and less wondrous than fuddy-duddies make them out to
be. The next generation of citizens, they insist, will happily inhabit a
culture composed of millions of small, spinning, sparkly bits and,
what's more, they will thrive in it. Tell that to the kids who spent all
weekend holed up with the last Harry Potter book. As exhausting as it
can be to fight off the siren call of the reactive attention system,
some part of us will always yearn to be immersed, captivated and
entranced by just one thing, to the point that the world and all its
dancing diversions grows dim, fades and falls away.

renata lemos

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