The Guardian newspaper had an interesting supplement last Saturday: ‘Train Your Brain’.
It correctly suggested that memory exercises can help slow declining age related memory problems. It didn’t mention that meta-analysis of the considerable body of research out there suggests that while there may be short term gains from ‘exercising’ your memory capacity, they only last a short time. Nor did it mention that there is no significant impact on cognitive reasoning skills. Or that the gains may be placebo effect, as many of the studies featured ‘untreated’ control groups
But the real focus was hinted at in the byeline: ‘Find Focus in the Digital Age.’
It was a set of articles loosely arranged around how we have reacted to digital media and how we might take stock and improve and control our responses. Multi-tasking is a myth, we just do lots of things in very small sequences, a lot worse than if we completed each task before moving on to the next. There are only so many things we can pay attention to at once and effectively do something with and about (hint – it’s one).
Yes we can, if we are not a past President of the USA, walk and chew gum at the same time but one at least of those processes, although learned, usually becomes an unconscious activity and shouldn’t require close mental control of how to do it. Reading, writing a report, answering a phone, talking to someone else and watching a cat throw up on social media at the same time however, means we are quite likely to walk away at best with a confused idea of what we just agreed to provide for the person on the phone.
Tucked away in the sixteen pages was a piece called ‘The Joy of Slow Reading’ by John Miedema. It praises taking time to read more complex prose and correlates this with the analogue medium, the book vice the digital e-reader and even more so vice the laptop browser. Interestingly desktop computers don’t even get a name check. I presume the thing I am writing on now is about to become obsolete.
Midiema makes many good points but there are a couple of things I want to question.
Point one: he says ‘Books are shorter. My attention span is too, I admit. Our brains are “plastic”, they are malleable. They have adapted to the new technologies, and in many ways, the change is a good thing.’ I can’t think of good ways our brains have adapted to incessant bombardment with rubbish. In the same supplement is quoted the 2005 research by Dr Glenn Wilson that constant interruptions and distractions at work had a profound negative effect on the ability to do that work beyond the time lost in the actual interruptions (characterised as a 10 point fall in IQ).
Point two: ‘We can choose to select fewer books for reading.’ This seems an odd suggestion. Earlier he says, quite rightly, that not all text deserves slow reading. He characterises his online reading as scanning vast volumes of content, whizzing from link to link. But that isn’t really reading, that is skimming, looking for something to read, and as he points out, most of that isn’t worth his attention.
Editors and publishers were gatekeepers to the availability of print. In the past the means of producing printed matter were scarce and restricted access was perhaps necessary.
The seemingly unending availability of electrons to convey our thoughts means such gatekeepers are no longer required. Access to getting our ideas and words and feelings out there no longer needs to be controlled by a narrow self selected cultural elite.
This has to be good doesn’t it?
Possibly, but like many good things, it has a flip side.
How do we sort the wheat from the chaff?
Miedema says, and I have no reason to doubt him, that a person can only read about 5,000 books in a lifetime. Given the increasing demands on our time how do we make a stab at ensuring those suddenly finite hours of reading are best used? I suspect I could use up my allotted time just searching for the 5,000 never mind actually reading them.
There is, and I am aware of the irony, too much stuff to read.
Reading fewer books may be a good idea if I am speed reading (ie not really reading) the ones I read now. Slow down and really read them. But I suspect the real answer is to stop reading acres of advertising copy disguised as online articles, descriptions of cat memes and the endless drivel about the doings of minor celebrities.
So, my advice would be read MORE books and filter out the torrent of short attention seeking dribble that clutters the smart phones of the world.
That doesn’t mean read fewer books. But the days of my omnivorous consumption of all reading matter are probably over.