THE REACTIVE VERSUS THE REFLECTIVE BRAIN
Laura Miller’s essay in Salon on Willifred Gallagher’s Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life is a must read for anyone pondering with alternating degrees of fascination and worry the effect of internet communication and online media on our attention spans as well as our psyches. This is stuff I think about myself as I wonder why, for example, I’ve never rewatched Berlin Alexanderplatz, the beautiful Criterion edition of which sits right in front of me, while I did just watch Justin Timberlake’s Mother’s Day SNL spoof. It’s easy for some of us to joke about being ADD and for others to construct neo-Luddite arguments lamenting the dumbing down of America, but it’s harder to discuss such issues with the multi-faceted approach they demand. That’s what Miller does in her discussion of Gallagher’s book, tying our dwindling attention span to both atavistic traits as well as possible neurological changes in our brains.
Part of what’s great about Miller’s piece is the simple feeling of recognition it produces. An excerpt:
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. [Nicolas] Carr (whose argument was grievously mislabeled by the Atlantic’s headline writers as a salvo against the ubiquitous search engine [Google]) 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.
She goes deeper, moving from diagnosis to analysis, when she states a simple fact that I recognized myself fairly recently: the things that distract us online are actually less fun than the things we could be doing offline. She explains:
What this commonplace crisis comes down to is our inability to control our own minds…. 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.
As she discusses the book (which she seems mixed on: “Ironically, for a book about focusing, Rapt can be frustratingly scattered, self-contradicting and platitudinous…”), Miller cites some of the reasons that relatively unnourishing internet media can pull us away from richer, more provocative, or simply more fun and entertaining material that doesn’t have a keyboard attached to it. One reason has to do with the “primitive, stimulus-driven, unconscious systems” capable of overriding our reflective minds and another has to do the plasticity of the brain and the possibility that all these emails, IMs, PMs, tweets, and status updates are actually rewiring our brains.
I guess one reason I’m so interested in this piece is that I am fascinated by how new forms of storytelling emerge out of economic and technological change. For a little while I have been waiting for that short-form web series or email-blasted narrative communiques that feel as important and enriching to me as one of my favorite movies or books. I still have faith that such media is coming, but Miller’s article suggests that we may be too distracted to appreciate its quality when it does finally arrive.