Rain is a good thing. It brings life and growth to plants. It washes the air of pollen. But too much rain can be destructive. It can flood fields, wash away buildings, drown life.
The Internet is similar. It can open up worlds of information and opportunities. But too much of it can be destructive.
“Online technology… by its very nature fragments and scatters our attention like nothing else, radically compromising our ability to make sense of the world, … rewiring our brains and rendering us increasingly helpless against our impulses,” says Rod Dreher in his 2017 book “The Benedict Option.”
He explains, “At the neurological level, the Internet’s constant distractions alter the physiological structure of the brain. The brain refashions itself to conform to the nonstop randomness of the Internet experience, which conditions us to crave the repetitive jolts that come with novelty.”
“The result of this is a gradual inability to pay attention, to focus, and to think deeply,” he says. “Study after study has confirmed the common experience many have reported in the Internet age: that using the Web makes it infinitely easier to find information but much harder to devote the kind of sustained focus it takes to know things.”
The content we’re looking at may be harmless—even good. But the way we engage with it actually changes our brains to make them addicted to stimulation every few minutes. We think we’re choosing what we want to look at, but, in fact, we are giving up the capacity to control and sustain our own attention.
Our attention, to a great extent, determines the quality of our lives.
“My experience is what I agree to attend to. Only those items which I notice shape my mind,” says William James, the founder of psychiatry (quoted by Dreher).
If we want to maintain and increase our mental focus, we need to do something.
If we want to help our children be able to control their attention, we need to do something.
Reading can be that something.
Focused reading for a sustained period of time (even 20 minutes!) strengthens your ability to pay attention.
Consider setting a timer and then turning off all devices and shutting yourself off from all sources of potential interruptions until it rings. Start with short periods and gradually increase it.
If you have children, you might think it’s impossible to find uninterrupted reading time. But if you make it a priority, you’ll probably be able to come up with creative ways to do it. Modeling this is crucial for your children. Then find creative ways to structure their time so they have uninterrupted sustained reading time before spending time on electronic devices.
This precious daily reading time will serve as an umbrella to shield you from having your attention washed away by the flood of things coming at you online.
How do you keep yourself from being sucked into the technological whirlwind? How do you practice sustained attention?