Reading Distractions (bleep bleep)

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It’s been kind of hard to concentrate in the last couple of weeks. My reading has been distracted by the bleep from my phone – news updating more frequently than planes landing at Heathrow, tweets, Wimbledon scores, weather updates from schools as sports day is postponed yet again. I can’t ‘deep read’, my concentration is shot. Apparently, I’m not alone.

“We willingly accept the loss of concentration and focus, the division of our attention and the fragmentation of our thoughts, in return for the wealth of compelling or at least diverting information.” Nicholas Carr, The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains

But research continues to show that this fragmentation is unhealthy for us. We can’t concentrate as well as we used to. We lack the attention span to devour long, complicated literature. We are addicted to the bleep from our phones. And we’re passing this fragmentation onto our children.

A study in the journal Current Biology, published this year, tracked eye movements of 36 parents and their babies. The experts at Indiana University found that there is a direct connection between how long a parent pays attention to a toy and the impact on their child’s concentration. The babies with the shortest attention spans were those whose parents frequently got distracted and looked elsewhere (at their phones). Interestingly, those parents who let their child take the lead in play, but were actively responsive, got the best results.

Another recent study on older children, Mobile Phones in the Classroom: Examining the Effects of Texting, Twitter, and Message Content on Student Learning, found that students who had abstained from using their mobiles during a lecture were better able to recall information and answer multiple choice questions. In 2015, an LSE study found that secondary schools that banned mobiles found that test scores improved by more than six per cent.

Researchers found that it took longer to finish a task when the students were looking at messaging at the same time (which is kind of obvious), but also found that the more time they spent on messaging, the lower their comprehension scores. So reading comprehension was impaired by constant interruption.

But I don’t really need science to see what’s going on. A person only has to look around, ask peers, watch family members. Very few people remain immersed in a task for long without looking at their mobile phones or devices. Think about the last time you read a book. Did you have your mobile next to you? And how often did you glance at it? Children repeat behaviours – so if their adults are doing it, they will too.

Children’s brains keep growing until they are well into their twenties, and hardwiring the ability to focus attention deeply must be achieved by this point. Our ability to concentrate is a strong predicator of future success. No one hones a skill by being constantly distracted from the task in hand.

In fact, it’s even more important than that. Psychologist David Goleman explains that the neural connections for paying attention and managing distressing emotion are the same. It’s all about will power – if you can’t concentrate for long periods of time, you’re less likely to be able to control your emotions too. It’s all in the pre-frontal cortex. Being focussed is simply an element of self-control – the willpower not to let yourself be distracted. The same self-control that governs emotions and enables a person to feel empathy for another.

Scientists now say that multi-tasking is actually a myth. It’s just ‘continuous partial attention’. Doing two things at once just means that a person is not fully focussing on either task. Of course when doing a routine action, the effect is less pronounced, but when learning something new or approaching a new task, the result on the brain can be profound. Some researchers argue that multi-tasking is not just a myth, but is actually bad for you, causing changes at brain structure level.

“When they’re in situations where there are multiple sources of information coming from the external world or emerging out of memory, they’re not able to filter out what’s not relevant to their current goal. That failure to filter means they’re slowed down by that irrelevant information.” Antony Wagner, Professor of Neuroscience, Stanford, study on multitasking in 2009.

In my case, I’m interested in the effect on reading concentration. If you’re not ‘deep reading’ something – ie, being fully focussed on the text in front of you, then you’re not committing it to long-term memory. Even short term memory can be affected – how often do you re-read the last paragraph when you return to a text after a small distraction?

Are we dumbing down literature because we have changed our brains and we are less able to concentrate on ‘harder’ texts? Last week a book called The Bestseller Code by Jodie Archer and Matthew Jockers described an algorithm for ‘bestsellers’ over the last five years – common traits included the word ‘okay’ appearing more than three times as much as in less successful books. Last week too, children’s author David Thorpe asked why linguistic standards have slipped in books for older children here.

There are wider implications of our reliance on beeps and bleeps too. Are children less likely to use their imagination if their heads are filled with an ongoing influx of news and information? Are they less likely to play outside; make a den; invent their own world, if they can scroll through their friends’ texts and Instagram accounts instead.

There are no clear answers, but it’s something to think about. Did you read all the way through this without checking your email/texts/twitter? Or did you get distracted? I received three text messages whilst writing this piece, and I stopped to look at each one. Next time, I’m putting the phone out of reach. You never know, it might give me more time to think of some solutions.