Why can’t we concentrate?

Laura Miller in Salon:

Story Here's a fail-safe topic when making conversation with everyone from cab drivers to grad students to cousins in the construction trade: Mention the fact that you're finding it harder and harder to concentrate lately. The complaint appears to be universal, yet everyone blames it on some personal factor: having a baby, starting a new job, turning 50, having to use a Blackberry for work, getting on Facebook, and so on. Even more pervasive than Betty Friedan's famous “problem that has no name,” this creeping distractibility and the technology that presumably causes it has inspired such cris de coeur as Nicholas Carr's much-discussed “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” essay for the Atlantic Monthly and diatribes like “The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future,” a book published last year by Mark Bauerlein.

You don't have to agree that “we” are getting stupider, or that today's youth are going to hell in a handbasket (by gum!) to mourn the withering away of the ability to think about one thing for a prolonged period of time. Carr (whose argument was grievously mislabeled by the Atlantic's headline writers as a salvo against the ubiquitous search engine) reported feeling the change “most strongly” while he was reading. “Immersing myself in a book or a lengthy article used to be easy,” he wrote. “Now my concentration often starts to drift after two or three pages. I get fidgety, lose the thread, begin looking for something else to do. I feel as if I'm always dragging my wayward brain back to the text.” For my own part, I now find it challenging to sit still on my sofa through the length of a feature film. The urge to, for example, jump up and check the IMDB filmography of a supporting actor is well-nigh irresistible, and once I'm at the computer, why not check e-mail? Most of the time, I'll wind up pausing the DVD player before the end of the movie and telling myself I'll watch the rest tomorrow.

More here.