Posted by: Erin Stutesman | November 13, 2016

The Death of the Attention Span

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In The Shallows, Nicholas Carr explains that for all of the internet’s merits, it has negatively impacted our ability to focus- whether on a long book or even a conversation.

While reading, I suspected he was right about this, as I remembered how I used to completely tune out the world while reading, especially before I had a cell phone. Now, I am able to do so only if I am somewhere isolated, such as at the beach or the park, with minimal distractions— no cell phone, music, or other people.

To test Carr’s theory, I kept a tally of every time I got distracted while reading his book. As it turns out, it happens embarrassingly often, and it doesn’t take much; It could be a car alarm outside or my cat walking into the room.

Ultimately, I strongly believe that the internet is a positive tool, despite Carr’s fears of its effect on our brains. However, this book has made me think about my ability to focus, or lack thereof, and it is something I will be more conscious of going forward.

To support the text, here is an interview with Carr, where he discusses the book, as well as the backlash from the first time he discussed this topic in a 2008 piece, Is Google making us stupid?

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W86P_FX6PdI

For the record, while watching this five-minute video, I checked my phone three times.

Illustration by Patrick Thomas, The New York Times.

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Responses

  1. Yes! Great post. Erin, I experience a similar twitch to do other things after focusing on a book or my iPhone after a few minutes. In addition to our lack of focus, Carr says we now have access to unlimited information with the Internet. There is so much to learn online, yet I pull myself in a million different direction while trying to focus on one thing. While reading Carr’s book I began thinking about multitasking.

    How can we enjoy, understand and internalize more of what we’re consuming while staying focused on the task at hand?

    Note to Self is a podcast tech show about being human, hosted my Manoush Zomorodi. In February 2016 she challenged her listeners to participate in the Infomagical project for one week. The first challenge was focused on our ability to focus.

    “Your instructions: All day long, do just one thing at a time. If you catch yourself doing two things, switch your focus back to one. Don’t read an article and Tweet about it – read it, then Tweet. Write an email until you’ve finished it and hit “send.” Perhaps even take a moment to just drink your coffee.”

    http://www.wnyc.org/story/infomagical-challenge-1/

    If we single task often enough, can our brains be rewired again? Do you think multitasking is a myth?

    • Thanks for sharing the challenge! I’ve been trying to just sit and eat breakfast at least one day a week, minus distractions. I’ll try to keep this in mind tomorrow morning. 🙂

  2. Hey Erin and Alexa,

    I too saw the irony in trying to focus my attention on Carr’s concerns about our re-wired brains and short attention spans. I kept thinking: Has he considered making this an audio book??

    Erin, great post. Alexa, thanks for the reference to Note to Self. I liked the challenge you described – that sounds so impossible to me right now, so I’m going to try it tomorrow!

  3. Timira, I have great news for you!

    It is available as an audio book on Audible.com, which is how I’ve been “reading” the book.

    I find it easier to focus on the text while listening, rather than reading.

  4. Do audiobooks help you focus? Or do you still find yourself drifting off and distracting yourself with things around you?

    P.S.

    I agree Erin, I think the Internet is a great thing. And like all things, it can be used for good or used for evil.


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