Scatterbrain

Kithia Verdon:

Every so often, an article comes out talking about how people’s use of the Internet is wrecking their brains, impairing their ability to focus, a sort of induced attention deficit disorder. Normally, I’d be skeptical of such hand-wringing. It has an old-fogey kids-these-days feel to it. But my own experience lately makes me feel it’s plausible.

Sometime over the last few years, I’ve become a compulsive skimmer. It’s become more and more difficult for me to really concentrate on what I’m reading. If I’m cruising the Internet, the urge to spin off another tab and jump to some other thing, be it Facebook or email or Twitter, keeps distracting me. If I’m reading a blog post, I quickly tire of working through the author’s thoughts and arguments, and skip to the end to see their conclusions or summary. Even reading something in print, my eyes constantly twitch to the paragraphs ahead, peeking at what’s next with a manic impatience.

That scares me some, because I wasn’t always that way. I majored in Philosophy, for crying out loud, and I didn’t cut corners on the reading, at least not often. I find it hard to imagine my today-self, who has to double back to a sentence sometimes three and four times before it sinks in, getting through one of those assignments and coming to class ready to discuss it the next day. I’m only 30! It’s not right for my mind to have decayed that far.

Maybe it’s not the Internet’s fault. It could be diet, or stress, or something in the water. But it makes sense, at least, that it could be my computer routine. Habit is a powerful thing, the pathways of the brain used for a particular behavior getting strengthened and comfortably worn until that behavior and its mindset become the path of least resistance among the synapses. And what I’m experiencing seems like optimized blog-cruising behavior. If you’re following several high-traffic blogs with hundreds of posts in the queue, each of them on a particular topic so there’s a degree of similarity among the posts within one, there’s simply not enough time in the day to open up every article and read it front to back. You have to skip around, skimming headlines, popping open the ones that seem interesting, and moving on if it doesn’t provoke your interest. Unfortunately, an ingrained habit like that can bleed out to places where it’s not as appropriate, like trying to enjoy a novel or familiarize oneself with the mechanics of a role-playing game.

More importantly for my purposes here, though, habits can be changed, with similar effort made to build up an alternative behavior and let the old one lapse. So I’m pondering what I might do to reverse the trend. I’ve got these three ideas so far. What else can you think of?

Luddite Saturdays. Based on Weekend Luddite, the idea is to regularly switch off all staring-at-a-screen type devices. No PC, no tablet, no Xbox or Playstation, no DS or PSP, not even any gaming on the cell phone. (I’ll permit myself DVDs/Netflix if the girlfriend wants to watch something together.) I’ve chosen Saturday, being a day when I have no computer-necessary obligations and which has the most idle time to waste. Having to find non-computery things to do with myself all day will help reintroduce me to the wonderful world outside the boxes, making it feel more natural to seek out entertainments requiring focus and motivation.

Bloggy Sunday. In something of the inverse of the above, I’m thinking I’ll do all my ADD-style Internetting on one day of the week. Catching up on blogs, forums, Facebook, Twitter, G+, and the like–anything carved up into lots of little pieces to jump around between–will take place on Sunday and only on Sunday. This will help establish a specific context where scatterbrain behavior is appropriate, keeping it contained.

Mindfulness meditation. The ancient practice of quieting the “monkey mind” and centering oneself in the present moment has been shown to alter brain activity for the better. If I can get a meditative mindset rolling, it’ll become easier to notice when I’m getting flaky and bring myself back to the task at hand. I’ve been wanting to do this for a while, actually, even before I noticed myself becoming computer-brained, so the trick will be finding a good time and quiet space to sit and meditate regularly. Maybe first thing in the morning on workdays?

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2 thoughts on “Scatterbrain

  1. Beth N. says:

    It’s obvious… you need more carbs in your diet! πŸ˜‰

    But seriously, I’ve had a similar problem myself.

    I’ve found that taking time–whether lunch break, dedicated time away from the PC at home, etc.–to read books has helped.

    Short stories on the internet, even though I’ve found quite a few good ones, just aren’t the same. There’s still that compulsion to look at something else on a different tab midstream, boot up a game of DC:SS or Torchlight, etc. etc. Moving away from the screens is the only way I’ve managed to do it at all.

    Books aren’t necessarily the best or only solution; they’re simply what’s working for me currently. Maybe something that takes some time and concentration like a jigsaw puzzle, puzzle game (Picross, Prof. Layton, etc.), Sudoku book, etc.?

    • sabrecat says:

      Books are indeed an ideal alternative! I have been reading a little more lately, partly thanks to taking a break from handheld games after two back-to-back 80-hour Square Enix titles, and it always feels good to finish another book.

      This free ebook has some fantastic advice on how to beat the hyperdistractedness phenomenon: http://zenhabits.net/focus-book/

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