Do we not read as much anymore because the Internet has sapped our attention spans?

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 “pleasure 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”

image 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.

22 Comments on Do we not read as much anymore because the Internet has sapped our attention spans?

  1. Speaking as someone who is regularly surrounded by phones, e-mail, web accounts and sites of interest (like this one), as well as work, financial and domestic responsibilities, yet still manages to close it all off for a few hours a day and write novels in my spare time (yes, I said spare time), I can only express amazement.

    The thing about all these web services is that they can be shut off with the flick of a finger. Sure, there are temptations to go check out this or that, and sometimes it takes an act of will to leave them be and concentrate on other things.

    Yet, trying to demonstrate that humans are somehow being unintentionally hard-wired to multi-multi-multitask, as if it’s a drug taking over our systems, in the face of people right next to them who use the same web services and can turn them off at will, seems to be a blatant attempt to shift the blame away from our own self-wills. We are confronted with our own shortcomings and weaknesses, and saying “the devil made me do it!” Thus assuaged, we don’t have to look any further for solutions to our problems… we can accept that we have been compromised by outside sources, and live with it.

    But this isn’t an addiction problem like kicking a drug habit, or quitting smoking. This is a learned behavior that can be consciously modified, just as we allowed it to modify us in the first place. We can turn things off, and pay attention to what’s happening in front of us. We can accept “the boring parts” as an opportunity to reflect on “the good parts,” as opposed to allowing our minds to wander to other places. And we can acknowledge those moments when we allow our minds to drift off, catalog those thoughts for later access, and snap back to the task at hand.

    Blaming our genetics or biology for our lack of attention span is simply finding an excuse for not addressing our own mental laziness and weakness. We’ll never be able to get back on the right track if we continue to do that.

  2. I pretty much agree with Steve (“simply finding an excuse for not addressing our own mental laziness”) but this theory that the Internet is ruining attention spans also fails to explain why television, movies and music have also been moving to faster pacing, jumpier jumps and more frenetic action since before the Internet hit the big time. Academics definitely have been issuing forth the exact same theories about television for quite some time now. And literacy rates, newspaper subscriptions and so on have been falling for decades, as well.

  3. I don’t think it’s that it’s sapping our attention so much as that it’s giving us new mediums to compete with the old ones. My sister used to joke that with the advent of on-line food ordering, she could spend a whole day on the computer and never leave her chair. It’s true! There are not just books and movies anymore, you can get television and movies on demand on-line now, blogs, news, shopping, the works. I don’t even have cable anymore but could easily rack up dozens of hours a week watching all sorts of tv shows for free on-line. So there is more competing for your time, and some people might not prioritize reading a novel.

  4. This is a main reason why I like having a single-purpose reading device for those times when I want to solely focus on a book, without distractions of email, web links, multimedia, etc.

  5. I agree with Bill, I love my Sony PRS-505 because I can read without interruptions or distractions of my gmail notifier letting me know I have a new email.

    Though I do have a hard time imaginging pausing my show to go check my email…I never get anything so important it can’t wait 40 minutes.

  6. I’ve been a book reader since I learned to read (over 55 yrs ago); had no TV in the house until after I was out of college.

    Nowadays, I actually read more. Since I have a small room in an apartment, most of my hardcopy books are in storage. On the other hand, my computer has a lot of disk space, so I can download ebooks, PDFs, HTML, etc., from lots of different places.

    My problem is probably that I read too much instead of doing directly-productive work.

  7. I think the internet is just a new time waster for when people are bored. Before the internet, it was TV; before that, radio; before that… novels.

    Yes, people used to read when they were bored. I can recall many passages in Austen’s novels where some character laments how young people are often only interested in reading ‘trashy’ novels instead of worthwhile endeavors.

  8. I think Steve Jordan is full of crap, to be quite frank with you. If you have a device AVAILABLE to you that actually stimulates Dopamine and other NT’s, then it’s actually BEYOND the control of many to cease that activity. It’s actually an ADDICTION as strong as heroin for some. Now couple that with the fact that, in this day and age, most people cannot perform many of their daily functions without going on-line (especially as society shifts more and more towards an on-line existence). So, no, I would have to say that Steve is full of crap and denying the reality of the situation which is one of almost FORDED PLIGHT.

  9. I agree and have been experiencing the same lack of concentration and desire to spend more time online checking news sites, etc. And, you are on to something with the rat study. Kids are being exposed to such high levels of stimulation it will be interesting to see if they are even capable of reading in ten years or so. Watch the Nickelodeon or MTV awards that are marketed to pre-teens. There’s more stimulation than a casino. That can’t be good!

  10. I agree with this article and was aware of the problem already. I’ve read some of the articles referenced also. I was always an avid reader, but lately have found it hard to either read anything lengthy or write anything lengthy, even though in total I write more than ever before, short comments and longer ones, in forums such as this for example.

    I’ve begun to force myself to pick up books, valuable ones on subjects which I have become interested in due to the internet, but solid books all the same. It is not unlike trying to break a drug habit actually.

  11. Ok guys for a start I find this article very wrong In it’s asertion that the Internet causes Consentration levels to decline and the ‘bombardment of infomation’ is the cause by things like Twitter and other rubbish. The eyes alone send 10 million bits of information per second alone to the brain which is recorded though we only have conscious access to about 20 or 30 bits of that we still take on a massive amount every day, so to assert that the Internet can cause you to lose function of your mind in some way is absurd! It’s more likely to be the crap people watch and do that’s mind numbing enough to dumb a person down or just old age. I spend time looking at and researching astro physics, quantum physics, ancient history and various other things which I wouldn’t have known before the Internet revolution. So no, I don’t agree with this article one bit. People just need to use the net more constructively than just goin online to say they went shopping or a friend took a dump! Their, their own worst enemy not the net, the net if anything is mind expanding!

  12. Ghost of Tim // April 22, 2010 at 3:18 am //

    Turn on
    Tune in
    Drop out

  13. I agree with Nicholas Carr: I used to be an avid reader. Just lose myself, immerse myself in a novel, like a Tolkein book, and could actually visualize what I was reading. Hours on end, the only drawback finding a comfortable position to read in. Lost in deep thought, I would even visualize the book at work the next day, the chapters read and what occured, anxious to get back to it asap. And would usually read an interesting novel cover to cover in a day or two, no matter the length.

    Now? I fidget, my mind wandering hither and yon…searching, not feeling fulfilled, good books left unfinished, while I roam around the internet looking for something *new* and *unique* to stimulate my brain. Like a lab rat.

    I do indeed agree the internet changes the way we think. Um, TV and Radio are not interactive media, so saying the ‘net is like them and they didn’t change us is an absurd comparison. And yes, TV does change the way you think….that is it’s FUNCTION now: to program YOU.

    All that said: I can unplug the damn computer, and am not saying anything about restricting it.

  14. I’m a little startled to see this relatively old article getting so much traffic again. Is it linked somewhere high-traffic? I’d like to know so I can go and check out the link.

  15. Out Attention span has shortened? From waht? From the boring lessons and classes we used to be forced to sit through?

    I will bet all I have that the majority of people here, have learned MORE outside regimented classes, where tptb’s ideas, what they wanted us to learn, useless minutae, unrelated to life, repetitions, cremmed down our throats. We have learned MORE from the INTERNET than when we didn’t have it! I KNOW this is true with all internet users.

    Tptb, actually kept us dumbed down – and now that we’re “coming out of the farm,” they want to force us back.

    “We actually resemble nothing so much as those legendary lab rats that endlessly pressed a lever…..”

    To Emile Yoffe, of Slate: “As the Indian said: ‘Speak for yourself White Man.’ ”

    I’m NOT a rat, I’m a thinking, discerning Human Be-ing.

    There is a plethora of spoutings from the Mass News Media and the Feds, claiming all kinds of negativity from the Internet, but all of this can bbe traced to the fact, that the Newspapers are losing money because the lies they print, the half-truths and obsfuscations, and just, censoreship.

    And the Feds, intend to destroy the internet, because the Alternate News Media on the ‘Net, presents the REAL happenings, historical and current. The Internet makes us, The People, aware of the stinking, corruption, the chicanery of Church and State! They think we are still in the ignorant, uneducated state of the poor “peasants” of the Middle Ages ( which btw, were kept that way by the very ones, who today, vilify the Internet, by any and all means.

    As for me, it has been a blessing! One can choose, in a discerning way, to read e-books, or whatever. But it is our choice. No person has to come along, to patronize us, instructing us, what is best.

    Long Live the Internet!

  16. Sure seems like it’s been re-linked from somewhere.

    As to the new comments: Any doctor will tell you that the Internet use in itself does not trigger a significant dopamine response… chemical imbalances do. Going “cold turkey” from an addiction causes significant physiological distress and detoxification symptoms, which cutting someone off the internet does not. To suggest the internet is somehow addictive, as a drug is addictive, is simply wrong.

    “Internet addiction” is a PR gag used to sell newspapers and magazines (ironically enough). But in reality, this is an issue of behavior and focus, both of which can be gained (or regained) with desire, practice, and occasionally outside assistance. Blaming outside influences is counter-productive, and will only make it harder to regain focus and re-balance behavior.

    Or, to put it another way: Get a grip.

  17. Yes, it’s been linked at http://www.Rense.com, a site which proudly proclaims itself as having been identified by the U.S. government as the web’s #1 conspiracy site.

    I read it everyday.

    And I find myself agreeing. I’ve been an avid reader since childhood, belong to my university alumni association just so that I can keep my library card and read the kind of scholarly works undergraduates will do anything to avoid – in several languages. I ditched the TV years ago. And yet I have overdue library books and stacks of purchases, things I know will be fascinating once I actually start them, but what do I do when I get free time? Turn on the Internet and start surfing. Meadows is right – it’s doing something to my brain.

    Now, back to work, oh, wait, I haven’t checked http://www.whatreallyhappened.com yet……

  18. Steve jordan the site I found it on is rense.com, but I warn you, if you but into the government Line of education and controlled media you won’t like it much. But yeah I’m with bonnie on this one, I’ve learnt more with the net than I ever did at school I can comprehend almost anything that’s thrown at me and google anything I don’t know the answer too. It’s what has sped up everything from consciousness, awareness, technology and many other things some of us take for granted! For instance, CERN, from the net they have created a super net capable of sending large amounts of data to where it’s needed and that device is going to revolutionise the way in which we live. It’ll show what theories are right and which are wrong and thus opening the door to many more discoveries and breakthroughs. Also mail is instant where as post was slow and cumbersome to scientists and people of the like that gave us what we have today. And besides if you honestly think the way you do why are you on here talking to us? Your using the very thing your slating. If it effects you the way you claim then get off and try some mental exercies to help your brain overcome this horrible addictive thing!

  19. Has carr considered that he has been putting up with bad writing all this time? and bad writers have been getting away with “it”?

    Carr whines again — 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

    So why do people get involved in this nonsense like twitter and facebook which are simply CIA-NSA info-siphoning attention-killing and time-wasting useless activities?

    The whole friending unfriending thing is as bad as watching CNN or FOX and expecting anything other than disinformation, lies and more time-wasting nonsense

    Answer me …

  20. I never said the web was adversely affecting me… it’s not. I use it, and when I’m done, I turn it off and do other things. Look again at the threads, and you’ll see it is fred, Gayle, (some other) Steve and farang who have a problem turning it off.

    And thanks for letting me know rense.com is a conspiracy site… now I know not to be bothered.

  21. It’s ok steve, I wouldn’t have expected you to check it out, only because there is one considerable diffrences between us and you, we check every avenues of information and make up our own mind by what we see from all angles. Have you ever heard the word Xenophobia, I can change an idea your scared of anything beyond your idea of reality. Just like the skeptic society. Everythings wrong fake and false untill you decide it’s genuine.
    Sounds harsh but I just get borard of hearing the same old dribble.

  22. I’m a natural skeptic, too. But there’s a difference, in my opinion, between being a skeptic and being a sucker…

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