Could part of the reason for the decline in reading be a declining attention span brought on by overstimulation with information? Some recent editorials and articles suggest it might be a possibility.
Ars Technica’s Nate Anderson chronicles an exchange between New Yorker writer George Packer and New York Times “Bits” blogger Nick Bilton. Packer is concerned that the constant bombardment of information from e-mail, webpages, blogs, Twitter, Facebook, et al are eroding the attention span and leaving people unable to concentrate. He writes:
Twitter is crack for media addicts. It scares me, not because I’m morally superior to it, but because I don’t think I could handle it. I’m afraid I’d end up letting my son go hungry.
Bilton responds, chiding Packer for knocking Twitter without trying it, and writes about all the beneficial uses Twitter has in business, journalism, protests, and other activity.
Packer, however, is not convinced.
The Shortening Attention Span
Through Packer’s posts and the Ars piece, the writers reflect on how hard it is to find the time and attention to read books anymore. So does Nicholas Carr, the writer of a piece in The Atlantic that Ars’s Anderson links:
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.
Why is this the case? This piece in Slate offers a clue. In our constant information searching and bombardment, Emily Yoffe writes,
We actually resemble nothing so much as those legendary lab rats that endlessly pressed a lever to give themselves a little electrical jolt to the brain. While we tap, tap away at our search engines, it appears we are stimulating the same system in our brains that scientists accidentally discovered more than 50 years ago when probing rat skulls.
Almost everybody has heard about this experiment in high school or college psychology class. Remember the rats that would press a lever repeatedly to the exclusion of all else to stimulate the “reward center” of their brain?
Though it might be better called the “seeking center,” this is the same part of the brain that is stimulated by constant bombardment of information. It has to do with the neurotransmitter dopamine, which is produced by this activity (and also by things like cocaine and amphetamines).
“It’s Like Rickrolling, But You’re Trapped All Day”
It’s the same drive that causes people to spend hours on search engines, Wikipedia, or TVTropes, going from one link to another. The same drive that powers shopping, and the reason we get carried away by games offering rewards at irregular intervals—be they slot machines or World of Warcraft. The anticipation, the seeking, is better than the actual finding. And Slate adds:
Actually all our electronic communication devices—e-mail, Facebook feeds, texts, Twitter—are feeding the same drive as our searches. Since we’re restless, easily bored creatures, our gadgets give us in abundance qualities the seeking/wanting system finds particularly exciting. Novelty is one. Panksepp says the dopamine system is activated by finding something unexpected or by the anticipation of something new. If the rewards come unpredictably—as e-mail, texts, updates do—we get even more carried away. No wonder we call it a "CrackBerry."
Like an addict with his fixes, this constant stream of stimulation leads to a need for more of it, more often. Carr writes in the Atlantic piece linked above:
As the media theorist Marshall McLuhan pointed out in the 1960s, media are not just passive channels of information. They supply the stuff of thought, but they also shape the process of thought. And what the Net seems to be doing is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation. My mind now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles. Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski.
Carr goes on to cover studies that suggest people’s reading habits on-line are changing, and to talk about the effect changing to a typewriter had on Nietzche’s writing style. He writes that the Internet has an effect on other media which sounds almost like a description of the behavior of Star Trek’s Borg:
When the Net absorbs a medium, that medium is re-created 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. A new e-mail message, for instance, may announce its arrival as we’re glancing over the latest headlines at a newspaper’s site. The result is to scatter our attention and diffuse our concentration.
My Own Attention…Wait, What Was I Doing?
From my own personal experience, I am finding something very similar happens. Sometimes I find it hard to “unplug” and direct my attention in only one direction. And sometimes it’s hard to get up the impetus to sit down and write something long-form, because I don’t want to put my attention in any one place for that long.
Even when watching movies or new episodes of my favorite TV shows, I sometimes have to pause and pull up a web browser to check my mail, or pop onto a chatserver to exchange words with friends. When I was watching Avatar for the second time with my parents, during the “boring parts” I would slip out to the aisle where I was blocked from view of the rest of the audience and check my email and Twitter from my cell phone.
I still enjoy reading, and still have the ability to read books in one go—especially if they are sequels to something I have read before, and/or if they’re on my iPhone rather than print—but that could be a factor of how much books and reading shaped my life growing up. For someone without as strong a connection, it’s easy to see how the ability to read long form works could be imperiled.
Can anything be done to make it easier for people to lose themselves in books without constantly worrying about checking their Twitter or e-mail? This is something that the publishing industry should consider very seriously, especially as they raise the price of the form of books best suited to our modern short attention span.