Read any good books lately? Read any books at all? If you’re like a growing number of Americans, the answer is likely no. According to a recent poll by the Pew Research Center, nearly a quarter of Americans say they haven’t read a book, or even part of one, in the last year. Finding the focus and marshaling our attention to read books has never been more challenging. And that’s deeply troubling.
Though it’s not like we’re not taking in information. In fact, we’re drowning in it. But the ways we take in information — in noisy, fragmented, random bursts — is not just robbing us of our attention, it’s changing the way we think and the way our brains are wired. And it’s limiting our ability to reflect and think deeply, to connect with others and ourselves, and to tap into our wisdom.
The idea that the manner in which we process information matters isn’t new. The first chapter of Marshall McLuhan’s seminal 1964 work Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man is entitled “The medium is the message.” What that means is that with each new innovation in communication technology, we tend to focus on the content of the communication, but it’s actually the structure of the technology itself that is ultimately more important in shaping how we think. And it does this in ways we’re often unaware of.
So what does it mean that we’re now living in an “ecosystem of interruption technologies,” as the writer Cory Doctorow puts it. According to a study by Microsoft, the average human attention span has shrunk to eight seconds, one second less than the attention span of goldfish. In our defense, though, goldfish don’t use Twitter. And Facebook. And Instagram. And… sorry, what was I talking about again? I lost my train of thought.
Our new way of taking in information is driving our inability to focus and reflect deeply because it’s also altering the underlying architecture in our brains. As U.C.L.A. education professor Maryanne Wolf writes in The Guardian, the circuitry that allows us to read was built up over thousands of years, enabling “the development of some of our most important intellectual and affective processes: internalized knowledge, analogical reasoning, and inference; perspective-taking and empathy; critical analysis and the generation of insight.” But in the world of digital reading and information intake, these deeper thought processes are fading. “There’s an old rule in neuroscience that does not alter with age,” Wolf writes: “use it or lose it.”
And right now, we’re losing it. As Nicholas Carr wrote in The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, the wiring in our brains is changing to mirror how we’re using them: “As the time we spend exchanging bite-sized text messages crowds out the time we spend composing sentences and paragraphs, as the time we spend hopping across links crowds out the time we devote to quiet reflection and contemplation, the circuits that support those old intellectual functions and pursuits weaken and begin to break apart.” And as Carr told Ezra Klein, “What was lost was not only the ability to engage in deep reading and attentive thought and contemplation, but also when we come across new information, the ability to bring it into our mind and put it into a broader context.” In fact, in December, Klein, whose New York Times podcast features deep-dive interviews with book authors, confessed on Twitter that he finds reading long pieces online difficult and asked his readers for recommendations for “focused, long digital reading.”
I myself love reading physical books. I can mark them up in the margins and highlight my favorite passages. And as I do, it helps me commit them to memory, and locate my reactions and thoughts in a specific time and place, as opposed to the disembodied, non-linear digital world. I know you can highlight books online, but for me it doesn’t match the feeling of pulling a book off my bookshelves and looking at what I had highlighted maybe last week, maybe 10 years ago. Occasionally, I’ll even disagree with earlier versions of myself. But that simply points to the way real books allow us to have a constant conversation not just with authors and their subjects, but with ourselves. That’s what allows us to tap into our own wisdom, connect with the wisdom of the past, grow and evolve.
But as Wolf argues, reading in our noisy, bite-sized digital world has made skimming the new normal. And when we skim, “we don’t have time to grasp complexity, to understand another’s feelings, to perceive beauty, and to create thoughts of the reader’s own.” Deep reading is what allows us to step into the lives and experiences of others, nurturing and broadening our sense of empathy — something in short supply these days. As Joyce Carol Oates put it, “reading is the sole means by which we slip, involuntarily, often helplessly, into another’s skin, another’s voice, another’s soul.”
This doesn’t just affect us individually, but collectively as well. A just-published study found that faster internet connections weakened people’s sense of civic engagement. As the study authors put it, “This result is disturbing as it suggests that progress in information and communications technology can undermine an essential factor of economic activity and the functioning of democratic institutions.”
It’s part of what Johann Hari calls “a serious attention crisis,” which he explores in his important new book, Stolen Focus: Why You Can’t Pay Attention — and How to Think Deeply Again. Hari cites neuroscientist Joel Nigg, a leading expert on pediatric attention problems, who believes we may be in an “attentional pathogenic culture,” in which sustained focus is becoming all but impossible. “This isn’t happening because we all became weak-willed,” Hari writes. “Your focus didn’t collapse. It was stolen.”
We’re confronting a paradox: the technology that connects us to the whole world is the same technology that keeps us drowning in the shallows and disconnects us from ourselves. Yes, technology has been a lifeline during the pandemic, allowing millions to work from home and stay in touch with friends and loved ones. At the same time, it has produced our “pandemic brain,” that combination of tech overload, stress and lack of focus we’ve all experienced over the past two years.
The answer to having our attention stolen is to steal it back. “I believe we now need an attention movement to reclaim our minds,” Hari declares. “I believe we need to act urgently, because this may be like the climate crisis, or the obesity crisis — the longer we wait, the harder it will get.”
Some are doing just that. Padma Warrior founded Fable, a platform for reading and online book clubs. For Warrior, reading was her refuge while growing up in India. But nobody knows better than a former Chief Technology Officer of Cisco and Motorola how technology has accelerated the pace of our lives and made deep reading more difficult. “Starved for time and with limited mental energy, we are endlessly scrolling, constantly searching for ways to fill the micro-moments in our busy lives or distract ourselves from things unfolding outside our doors,” she writes.
Warrior’s solution? “Stop ingesting digital junk and start reading a book.” As she notes, reading books, especially fiction, can be “a powerful tool for mental wellness,” with studies showing that reading can increase our empathy, mental agility and creativity, reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety and help lower our risk of dementia.
There are even mental health professionals who practice “bibliotherapy,” using reading as an adjunct to other forms of clinical therapy for patients with mental health issues. In the U.K. the non-profit organization The Reader promotes a “shared reading movement” as “a tool for helping humans survive and live well.”
The pandemic has been a forced pause, one that has given us time to think about what we truly value. It’s allowed us to see the value of going deeper, of connecting with ourselves in more profound and meaningful ways. There is a collective longing to stop living in the shallows. And reading is one of the most powerful — and widely available — antidotes to our harried, always-on culture of stress and burnout. We still might not be able to travel freely, but with books we don’t need to get on a plane or get a negative test to be transported to another place, or another time.
“Reading,” the 18th century English essayist Joseph Addison wrote, “is to the mind what exercise is to the body.” It’s essential not just to our mental health and our physical health, but also our capacity for empathy and our ability to connect with others. By allowing us to see the world from other perspectives, reading makes it more possible to come together and work collectively to meet the big challenges we’re facing in the world today. So grab a book, and for a few hours trade the shallows for the depths.
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