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