A Simple Cure to the Web's Effect on Your Concentration

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The Internet is rerouting pathways in our brains, researchers say, pushing aside the attentive mind of the book reader in favor of the distracted mind of the screen watcher. Author Nicholas Carr thinks that awareness may be the antidote to this Faustian swap.

Carr’s new book, “The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains,” charts this technological and neurological  upheaval and how it favors a scanning, skimming and jumping around mode of thought over linear thinking and deep attentiveness.  The problem, he told TechNewsDaily, is that this brand of thinking dovetails nicely with our natural inclinations as humans.

“Psychological studies show we have an enormous desire for new information and we have an enormous desire to be socially connected,” he said. “The Web plays to our desire to be inundated with information, particularly small bits of information. We’re not adapting to this medium against our will.”

There’s an irony in this, Carr says, because books were the original disruptive technology, forcing our ancestors to shift their focus from the spoken word to the printed page and a mode of thinking that encouraged the sustained attention reading requires.

The kind of thinking encouraged by the barrage of sights and sounds offered online takes us back to a simpler time for our species. “In some ways, the Internet returns us to a more natural, native form of information gathering,” he said. “The human brain formed at a time when you wanted to be distracted. You wanted to shift your attention constantly in order to be aware of threats in the environment or a bush that has some edible berries on it.”

In that kind of environment, the ability to rapidly scan and skim and process information from a variety of sources was a prized ability, one that frequently had life-or-death consequences. While this may have played well back in the days when saber-toothed tigers were our neighbors, this ability is not an unalloyed blessing in our contemporary world.

Multitasking, in fact, can diminish performance, Carr said. And there’s a danger that skimming and scanning are going to become our dominant way of thinking as we increasingly use the Web as our universal medium to get information in all forms — video, audio and text. “What we’re losing is the other deeper, more attentive mode of thinking,” he said. “If you don’t do it, you’re going to lose it.”

Standing in our way, Carr believes, is the fact that the Web and all our connected devices are very seductive in the way they distribute information.  It can be difficult to cut free. Being connected all the time is becoming an expectation for many of us in both our work lives and our social lives. Often, he said, it’s not a personal choice, “It’s demanded by the world.”

The antidote? “The most important thing we can do is simply be aware of what we might be sacrificing as we spend more and more time with our computers and smart phones,” he said. “Many of us don’t have that awareness because we’re dazzled by all the good things the Internet can do.”

We can have the best of both worlds, Carr believes. “Being able to surf and skim is absolutely essential to our intellectual lives,” he said.  “I think the well-rounded mind is able to both skim quickly and be very attentive and think with great concentration.”

“The prescription is pretty simple. You have to do less stuff online and more stuff off line, particularly stuff that involves concentration and attentiveness.”