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Brain Drain?
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Frying Our Brains With Information Or Evolving?

By James Donahue

A recently published book by Maggie Jackson, Distracted: The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age, argues that our current electronic communication devices may be destroying our ability to think clearly, and affecting our attention span.

Jackson says society today is overloaded with information that is coming at us at great speed via the cell phone, e-mails, instant messages, text messages, fax machines, television and radio that it is hard for anybody to concentrate and think creatively.

In a recent interview with wired.com, Jackson said scientists now believe attention is an organ system within the workings of the human brain. “It has its own circuitry in the brain, and there are specialized networks carrying out its different forms.”

She said humans appear to be “programmed to be interrupted. We get an adrenalin jolt when orienting to new stimuli. Our body actually rewards us for paying attention to the new. So in this very fast-paced world, it’s easy and tempting to always react to the new thing.”

Many articles have been posted in recent months about studies that suggest people who spend a lot of time reading articles and messages on a computer have a difficult time enjoying the reading of a good book. It appears that we have gotten so used to getting information thrown at us in brief clips that staying focused on the plot of a lengthy book quickly bores us.

Jackson addresses this problem in more technical ways. She said science has learned that networks in the brain develop at different paces, most of it accomplished by the age of eight. She said it continues to develop until about age 20.

She also warns that jobs that require multi-tasking and constant interruptions also can be an environmental hazard. “In our country, stillness and reflection are not especially valued in the workplace. The image of success is the frenetic multi-tasker who doesn’t have time and is constantly interrupted. By striving toward the model of inattention, we’re doing ourselves a tremendous injustice.”

This writer, who spent his time in busy newspaper offices, came face-to-face with a chaotic work environment where attempts at creative writing were constantly being snafued by ringing telephones and interruptions by demanding editors and fellow workers whose desks were located only inches away from mine. We knew multi-tasking before the word was invented.

Fortunately, I grew up in a home where reading was not only encouraged but it was considered a pleasurable thing to do. I had a habit of reading for an hour or more each night before I went to sleep, and on days when I could get away with it, I read as long as possible after waking up in the morning. I knew the joy of being lost in the drama of a good novel. There were times when I was reading as many as three books at once.

If Jackson is correct, it may explain why I found a way to keep focused on my writing while working in the midst of such a kaleidoscope of noise and constant interruption. I found it was possible to mentally shut out the noise and bury myself in the creative work set before me.

This technique worked to some degree, but there were certain interruptions that could not be ignored . . . such as the demanding bark of an editor. And at some newsrooms where I worked, there was a standing order to never allow the telephone to ring without picking it up. Thus when I became so mentally entrenched in my work that I failed to hear the editor, or notice that the telephone was ringing, there was trouble to deal with.

We find ourselves agreeing with Jackson when it comes to dealing with electronic media. After retiring, we have continued writing, and loving the new computer age and the easy access to information via the Internet. We never had such a library of general knowledge so easily available in the past. But like so many other folks who spend hours on line every day, our book and magazine reading . . . even newspaper reading has dwindled to an almost stand-still.

Is it that our attention span is damaged, or are we simply tired of so much reading? It is difficult to say which may be true. Also we notice that the multitude of great and creative films offered over our television screen each night is drawing our attention in place of the novel. The stories are just as thrilling, and the information is absorbed more quickly. We know the final chapter before we turn out the light.

We have heard it said that this new electronic system of fast news and information is actually a good thing for humanity. It is forcing us to deal with more information and not only sort out truth from untruth, but tuck it away in our brains where we seem to have an unlimited supply of storage space for this kind of thing. Thus this phenomenon may be helping us to evolve.