Caught In the Web: Attention or Interruption?

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In an article in New Philosopher, Jessa Gamble explores the impact of the digital world on our ability to think and maintain concentration over periods of time. The idea here is that the web is distracting us, as Gamble says, “We now live in a wired world of interruption.” Jessa Gamble is an award winning science writer, author and co-owner of The Last Word on Nothing science writing blog.

Distraction. I don’t think we even believe that distraction has a negative impact on our ability to create intelligent work output. Distraction is around us all the time. We take it for granted and even look forward to interacting over the web, receiving electronic messages which moves our focus away from concentrating over longer periods of time. Jessa,  ” Every great work of culture, be it a scientific breakthrough or a literary masterpiece, was achieved by a person who, at minimum, was able to pay attention.”  If we accept the fact that that the digital world is affecting our concentration does it also mean we are not using our brains the way we should?

Our brains grow stronger when we apply ourselves to new tasks and move out of our comfort zones. The new age of search engines, Internet and web take up much of the work we previously managed ourselves. Have we become lazy? An American teenager exchanges 100 text messages per day, and adults are no less distracted. An office worker will glance at her inbox between 30 and 40 times per hour. Each of the eye movements and pings represents a small break in attention. Jessa,”On some level we enjoy this harassment, because the new information, whether important or trivial, is inherently rewarding to our novelty seeking brains.”  Nicholas Carr, technology writer, believes the Internet is disrupting our ability to think deeply, and even rendering our individual personalities less distinctive.

Jessa provides an insight into how our brains were fruitfully employed previously. “‘Take the map for instance. When the map was developed, it extended our familiar territory – but it also brought abstract representations into contemporary minds. Those abstractions were overlaid not only on our physical spaces but also on our habits of thinking.” The mechanical clock also impacted, introducing a new emphasis on precise measurement and scientific thinking.


How best then to counteract Internet distractibility? It is a technology that facilitates just the opposite style of thought, the book. Gutenberg brought the printed word to the masses. Jesse, “Reading became a solitary pursuit, its ingestion so automatic that a deep empathy formed between the reader and the author. As the reader’s concentration strengthened, the author could, in turn, count on that attention span and risk writing more complex ideas. Books shielded the mind from distraction, and the reader’s thinking could lean on the scaffold of the text to sustain a single line of thought for longer. Readers developed a capacity for deep attention that had been rare in the history of thinking.” 

From an evolutionary point of view we are not wired to lose ourselves in deep thought and to exclude all else from our conscientious. Predators roam around us and it pays to be on our guard. The introduction of the book, as a result was very topical at the time, fostering complexity of argument to its benefits or otherwise. Jesse, “If a book’s fundamental nature is contemplative and empathetic, the Internet is precisely the opposite.”  The hyperlinks that layered pieces of information prompting us to move to other pages, thus breaking our line of thought also break down our ability to concentrate on a topic and remove our ability to absorb that information. Jessa, “Each highlighted link is a tax on working memory. The reader must decide each time whether to venture blindly into another, potentially more diverting web page.”

We are shown that periodic interruption overrides broad conceptual thought because it prevents the brain from weaving information from short term memory into the rich web of associations that compromise our long term memories. Nothing sticks. Because of this interruption we find that nothing sticks and we fail to feed our personalities by using the information from our past experiences, which makes our thinking singular and original. Jessa, “The brain is a wonderful adaptable organ, eager to please the world in which it finds itself. The skills we practice become easier, and those we neglect become more difficult. Some would say the more interesting ways of thought can take years to develop. It has always been a rare ability in humans, and with an interruption every couple of minutes even those with the aptitude for deep thought are less likely to come into their skills.”

Nicholas Carr maintains there is still hope for us all in retaining our abilities and in doing so building on our course to improve our thinking and be less interrupted. He went about finding the way forward by retreating to the Colorado Mountains where he was virtually shut out from the digital world. Gradually he found the ability to concentrate for longer periods of time returned. He said, “Disused circuits were springing back to life. In the crisp air of the mountains my brain could breathe again.”

There is the danger the Internet gradually finds a way to water down the strength of our memory because it leads us into finding information and executing responses automatically. We don’t need to rely on our thought processes. The digital systems do it for us. We must protect our brains and retrain them. Therefore find time to revitalise our brains. Find a place of peace away from the crowds and digital world. Find some books that complement the way we feel about the world and our place in it, and then read and write until we know we have regained control without the interruptions that we have grown to accept.

Hayley James



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