Distraction vs Concentration

Lost in a Maze of Reflections (by StarbuckGuy)

When is the last time you memorized a poem or a speech? Even something modest like Lewis Carrol’s “Jabberwocky” or e.e. cummings’ “Buffalo Bill”? If you’re like me, it’s been a long, long time. The last time I was required to memorize something for school was in the seventh grade, when each student in the class had to memorize and recite Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. As an undergraduate at university I would sometimes memorize poems simply because it was fun.

That was a different age. I wonder what a modern student would think if you were to suggest they memorize a poem. I suspect you’d just get one of those funny looks that says more eloquently than words how out of touch you are. Why memorize anything when you can look it up on Google in seconds?

Forget memorization then. When was the last time you read a long, important novel, say like Joyce’s Ulysses? If recently, good for you! Or how about a lengthy essay on a subject of interest. These are things I used to do but find I can’t do anymore. Memorization, lengthy reading of serious material — I find it too difficult to concentrate on anything for that long. I thought it was old age creeping up on me until I read the Atlantic essay, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” by Nicholas Carr. When he described what was happening to him, I felt I’d met a kinsman:

I can feel it, too. Over the past few years I’ve had an uncomfortable sense that someone, or something, has been tinkering with my brain, remapping the neural circuitry, reprogramming the memory. My mind isn’t going—so far as I can tell—but it’s changing. 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.

After referring to some anecdotes about others who have confessed to similar states, including a blogger who admitted he had quit reading books altogether, Carr then cites Maryanne Wolf, a developmental psychologist at Tufts University and the author of Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain. Wolf says “We are how we read.” Worried about the style of reading promoted by the Net, she says that when we read online we tend to become “mere decoders of information.” Our ability to interpret text, to make the rich mental connections that form when we read deeply and without distraction, remains largely disengaged. (see Carr above for additional material on Wolf)

This theme was highlighted again a couple of days ago in a Times Online article by Bryan Appleyard, “Stoooopid …. why the Google generation isn’t as smart as it thinks:
The digital age is destroying us by ruining our ability to concentrate”
, that begins with a caution from David Meyer.

David Meyer is professor of psychology at the University of Michigan. In 1995 his son was killed by a distracted driver who ran a red light. Meyer’s speciality was attention: how we focus on one thing rather than another. Attention is the golden key to the mystery of human consciousness; it might one day tell us how we make the world in our heads. Attention comes naturally to us; attending to what matters is how we survive and define ourselves.

The opposite of attention is distraction, an unnatural condition and one that, as Meyer discovered in 1995, kills. Now he is convinced that chronic, long-term distraction is as dangerous as cigarette smoking. In particular, there is the great myth of multitasking. No human being, he says, can effectively write an e-mail and speak on the telephone. Both activities use language and the language channel in the brain can’t cope. Multitaskers fool themselves by rapidly switching attention and, as a result, their output deteriorates.

The article then lists a chorus of writers who are articulating concerns and fears about what is happening to our brains and our culture through widespread chronic distraction.

Some of this is likely hyperbole or outright fear mongering. Whenever a topic like this starts to become a swell, my skepticism kicks in. Nonetheless, there’s something in this I feel inside myself and that I don’t dismiss outright. I’m particularly concerned when neuroscientists can demonstrate the effects of distraction in the brain. Using a cell phone while driving, they’ve observed in lab tests, is on a par with driving impaired with alcohol.

Fortunately it’s not all doom and gloom. The brain is malleable. Just as it can be conditioned to be distracted, it can be trained to pay attention. We can be taught how to focus and concentrate. We can even learn to ignore the ring of a cell phone.

I don’t know about reading Ulysses, but I think I’m going to go off and memorize a short poem, or a favourite song lyric.

Further Reading:

Jennifer Anderson. “Neurology Study: Brain Too Slow For Cell Phone Use While Driving”, Ergonomics Today.

Mark Bauerlein. The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future (Or, Don’t Trust Anyone Under 30). Tarcher, 2008.

Maggie Jackson. Distracted: The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age, Prometheus, 2008.

Sharon O’Brien. “Improve Your Concentration with Brain Fitness Activities”, About.com: Senior Living.


About Gene Wilburn

Gene Wilburn is a writer ~ photographer ~ humanist
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8 Responses to Distraction vs Concentration

  1. JohnB says:

    All through high school English Lit classes for me — and there was a strong incentive: you *knew* that one of the four or five peices you memorized that term would appear on the end of term exams (Fall, Spring, Final). My wife will tell you of the few that have remained in my noggin until now (“Is this a dagger that I see before me …” is a particular favourite of mine — not hers !)

    I’ve been meaning to find the time to memorize:

    “This royal throne of kings”
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3NI3a_X2F5s (at approximately 2:15)

    “What’s he that wishes so”

  2. MattNJohnson says:

    I think there is something to this idea that the Internet has made it more difficult to concentrate on one task. I find myself switching between websites throughout the day checking on different posts or articles. This isn’t a new phenomenon though, in my opinion. I feel the same thing happens to new parents. Before kids it’s much easier to plan out your day and stay on track with the plan. After kids, it’s much much more difficult to have a set plan and then really focus on those items throughout the day. The demands of the new little family member take precedent. So the parents end up switching constantly between the daily demands of running a household, going to work, and taking care of the baby. I ended up feeling like I had lost my mind by the end of some days. I think this is a larger issue of our ability to deal with an increasingly demanding world. It’s up to us to take a step back and focus on those things that are important and spend time with our kids, work through an issue, or finish project or a book. :-) It’s more of a personal challenge and goal than a societal ill, in my opinion.

  3. adam says:

    Excellent thoughts here – I am printing this out to consider it better (!) and will definitely get back to you with some considered thoughts .. soon!

  4. Gene says:

    Matt, some good thoughts here. I certainly recall the challenges we had as new parents! I agree that to some extent, perhaps to a large extent, it’s the complexity of the world around us that distracts us from concentrated efforts. And you’re right that it’s not new — in Walden, Thoreau was talking about the need to simplify life at least a century before the Internet. That said, I’m interested in following brain studies and neurological research on how concentration works, and what distractions may do, long term. The brain is plastic and can actually change its circuitry. It seems to be part of what makes habits ingrained — or as Norman Doidge has said, we can create ruts which can then be very difficult to modify. And doubtless, for me, it’s simply harder to concentrate due to brain changes that accompany aging. BTW, I don’t knock the Internet — I thoroughly enjoy my emails, social contacts, discussion forums, research queries, etc. Maryann Wolf, in her book above, says “deep reading IS deep thinking.” If we lose that ability, I’m curious about its implications.
    Adam, thank you. I’m no expert on any of these subjects. Just an interested lay person.

  5. MattNJohnson says:

    Hi Gene,

    Here’s an article that made me think of your post. It has some interesting observations about the power of the Internet.


    Take care,

  6. Gene says:

    Matt, this is a good counter piece — questioning the validity of the claims, which is something that appeals to my innate skepticism. Nonetheless, I do think that Internet usage has affected my neural patterns in subtle ways — not necessarily bad or good, but different enough for me to notice.

  7. Gene says:

    John, you did some impressive memorization when you were in school! I never did memorize much Shakespeare. I tended to memorize some of the moderns. Can still do a few lines from T.S. Eliot, but I’m rusty.

  8. Rohit Sharma says:

    The word “Focus” is used by people, books, articles and in the world on the average 1 Million times in the day all over, however Focus is still a misunderstood term. My dissatisfaction with the data available on the subject made me search some research journals and I was surprised by what I discovered.

    In spiritual studies, FOCUS is known as the power everyone wants to develop stronger than others. The reason is like in a hierarchy in the workplace, where the boss on top have the power to control others daily goals in the workplace, likewise in the world, the most powerful person is the one whose FOCUS is highest in intensity. This is the reason why so many esoteric sciences tell us that sages have been trying to increase focus since billion light years. Sages spend many years on their lives in dark caves trying to develop this power.

    If we take two beams of light and CONVERGE them (Inverted V), we can say the two beams are working in coherence. The point at which the two beams converge can be called as being FOCUSSED.

    If we take both the beams of light and completely DIVERGE them, they can actually become a straight line. (Open the V). Now the beams are DIVERGENT. When we are doing some activity which is leading to a result or outcome, our focus beam is in CONVERGENT Mode and when are meditating the focus beam is in DIVERGENT mode.

    So how this knowledge does helps us! In no manner whatsoever till now. Read on and it will make sense.

    Focus point always needs to have an objective or an outcome stored in it to make any difference in our lives. So to say, if we are outcome focused, we can call ourselves focused.

    We are daily focused on the outcome of the result (which is guided by positive and negative expectations), hence we are focused every minute, every day , every week on some outcome. Sadly most of these outcomes are negative outcomes.

    The good news is that whatever is the subject of our FOCUS will get converted into Reality (by our own unconscious actions). The bad news is that when the subject of FOCUS is negative (our expectation of negative is mostly stronger than the expectation of positive), we are unfortunately INTENSELY focused on the Negative Goal. When it comes to a positive goal, there is something that comes in the way.

    It has been known that if we can intensely focus on any goal, we can achieve it and unconsciously other people will help us achieve our goal. (The Universe will conspire to give us what we want). However this is not exactly true. Whenever we focus on the goals which we want so badly, we experience something called Scattering of Focus , wherein distractions and negative blocks reduce the intensity of focus and delay the achievement of goal or altogether cancels the goal. On the other hand, when we are focused on the negative outcome, we are highly focused and even if there are positive distractions (like positive inputs, positive thoughts), we continue to fear the worst (and hence FOCUS on the worst).

    You must be thinking, What can happen incase I can reduce this scattering of focus. What will happen is that not only will you achieve your goals much faster and with least struggle, but also you will start becoming unconsciously more powerful over people who has lesser intensity of focus and you will unconsciously control and guide their goals in a way that everyone will unconsciously help you achieve your goals.

    This will however happen in ways which are for the highest good of all concerned.

    When we voluntarily concentrate on any goal, the so-called executive center in the front of the brain — the prefrontal cortex is in charge. But when something distracting grabs our attention, the signal originated in the parietal cortex, toward the back of the brain. While concentration occurs at lower frequencies, Distraction occurred at higher frequencies. As distraction was developed as a survival tool, it has more power over us and therefore distraction has a stronger impact on our thinking than concentration.

    A lot of products teach us to increase focus, but very few teach us to reduce scatter. The moment we are able to reduce scatter, our focus automatically and effortlessly increases to the next level. I can guarantee you that if you put in 5% of the efforts of what you have dedicated to increasing Focus, you will radically improve your results and change your life faster than you can handle it.

    I have found the best way to reduce scatter is to use techniques taught by Astromind Research at http://www.improve-focus.com . Also you can look for various Focus CDs on the internet, however I have not had any major breakthroughs with any of these CDs.

    As a bonus in this article, I will explain what happens neurologically in the brain when we focus. As soon as we focus, all our resources are aligned with the goal. We become charged and determined to achieve the objective (unconsciously) and thereafter our unconscious or mind, immediately starts computing the various possibility in which it can take us forward towards the goal. The unconscious thereafter computes various computes various permutations/combination to make us take unconscious and conscious actions (a mixture of both) to make us achieve our objective.

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