The Changing Brains of Internet Users: Tips for Training Deep Attention

While Nicholas Carr’s dated article “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” from the July/August 2008 issue of The Atlantic was a somewhat insightful read, I found myself very skeptical about his conjecture that the more and more he uses the Web, the harder it is to focus on longer pieces of writing such as a novel or textbook. Carr proceeds to illustrate his point by giving anecdotal evidence in the form of interviews from his friends and acquaintances who he describes as “literary types, most of them.” Scott Karp, an english literature major turned blogger, claims to have “stopped reading books altogether.” Bruce Friedman, an Emeritus professor in the department of Pathology at the University of Michigan School of Medicine, claimed to “have almost totally lost the ability to read and absorb a longish article on the web or in print.” He later states, “I can’t read War and Peace anymore. I’ve lost the ability to do that. Even a blog post of more than three or four paragraphs is too much to absorb. I skim it.” Fellow classmates, do you agree with Karp and Friedman above? Do you find it impossible to exercise the deep attention required to read novels, textbooks, or any other longer piece of writing?

For me, that is an unequivocal no. Even though I have been a user of the Web for a little under 20 years now, I have never found it more difficult to read any body of work larger than the “three or four paragraphs” that Bruce A. Friedman, MD seems to have. After becoming a daily Web user back in the late 1990’s, when dial-up internet access and America Online reigned supreme, I still had no problem reading novels that piqued my interest (i.e. the entire Harry Potter series). And now, at the age of 24, I still have problems shutting off the lights and putting down whatever novel I am currently engrossed in (currently We Are Anonymous and Introduction to Algorithms) to get some sleep. But who knows? Maybe I am an outlier.

Maybe some of you, like Carr, Karp and Friedman above, find that the Web has transformed your brain, making it progressively harder to find deep attention. This personality trait can be detrimental towards our shared goal of attaining our bachelor’s degree from UNC. To combat this, I have done a bit of research on how to practice and train our brains to find deep attention faster. My Google searches have led me to a myriad of different techniques and writings on the subject which may or may not help in training the deep attention needed to accomplish many feats. First, spiritual teacher Fred Davis published a YouTube video on deep attention training which seems to be grounded in Advaita Vedanta, a school of Hindu philosophy. You can find the meditative video below. Second, Cal Newport, personal development blogger and professor of Computer Science at Georgetown University, has published Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World which provides tactics to honing deep attention. You can find an excerpt from the book on Medium.

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