Paying Attention to My Loss of Attention

As too many of my stories start, I was listening to a podcast yesterday. And in this podcast, one of the hosts lamented his apparent loss of attention span. He had been an avid reader, constantly craving new books to devour and consistently finding himself enraptured in their contents. Recently, however, he noticed a change: Not only was it harder for him to focus on the physical act of reading, but he found himself having difficulty even getting excited by a book’s subject. His faltering attention span didn’t just hinder his reading, but it seemed that the slow gratification of the nature of books was suddenly averse to him.

I found this story alarmingly relatable. I can distinctly remember reading before bed every single night as a child. I would wander the disheveled back room of my basement, peruse through monstrous bookshelves (really average sized bookshelves, but I was small for my age), and grab three or four random novels to read for the next month. What the hell happened?

Perhaps it is simply a natural phenomenon of getting older. Maybe when you’re younger, your lack of responsibilities frees your schedule for more reading time. Maybe when you’re younger, everything—including books—is more exciting, and the seldom-cynical wide-eyed nature of a child lends itself to reading. Maybe when we were all younger, the world was a different place, and we all functioned a little differently.

Truthfully, I’m the last person to cry out about “kids these days” and their “doggone technological hootenannies and whatchamacallits.” I think that tirade is best reserved for out of touch stand-up comics and uncomfortable Thanksgiving dinners. Historically, you might see a fair share of old men shaking their fists at the sky and yelling into the wind about how new, scary technology like the “transistor radio” is causing the moral corruption of the youth and the end of the world. In retrospect, these people seem overly dramatic and reactionary. But that doesn’t mean they were entirely wrong. We are products of our environments, and new technologies can have potent effects on us. Even if it is not the end of the world, it is still important to acknowledge and reflect on how the changing world is changing us.

While I wrote this, I probably checked my phone three or four times. As I quickly check my screen to see that, surprisingly, nothing important has happened in the last 12 minutes, the cowboy Kermit the Frog that lives as my wallpaper stares disappointingly at me, and I stare blankly back at him, wondering to myself why he and I keep playing this little game.

And the reason is that is feels good to get a notification—I like to see that someone texted me. I like to see that someone liked my tweet. I like to see that someone replied to my Instagram comment. Do I care what that person texted me? Was my tweet or my Instagram comment funny? No, probably not—but that’s not the point. Humans are social creatures inherently, so we like social interaction and the gratification that comes with connecting to another person. It’s a small reminder that you are not alone and that you need not bare the weight of existence by yourself because you are a part of the greater humanity. Actually being social, however, can be hard—it requires thought and effort. Luckily, social media and texting and email and all forms of instantaneous impersonal connection allow us to skip all the hard stuff and get right to the serotonin. I don’t need to put in effort, or even wait. My phone can trick my brain into feeling good at the touch of a button.

I think there’s a recurring pattern in modern life of this sort of instant gratification with little effort. Why wait a week for the next episode when I can binge all of it now? Why take the time and effort to cook a meal when I can get Ubereats to deliver food right to my couch? Why go to the store to buy new sheets when Jeff Bezos will launch it to me before bedtime? Why do some many goddamn people I know watch The Office over and over and over and over again? You’ve already seen it! Several times!

It’s easy. The answer to all those questions is that it’s easy—much in the same way that listening to a podcast is a lot easier than reading a book.

In 1954, experiments done by Olds & Milner found “reward centers” in the brains of mice. The mice were given a button that when pushed, stimulated a part of the brain resulting in pleasure. The mice would push the button over 7,000 times an hour, even ignoring food when hungry and water when thirsty in favor of pushing the button.

In some ways, that button is always in our pockets, and we have a few other buttons at home that cost 12 bucks a month. I don’t think we are wrong for succumbing to the temptations of the button, but we do need to be aware of it. We are not mice, and we can’t let ourselves ignore our food and water, whatever they may be.

Featured Graphic by Anna Tierney / Graphics Editor