Hugh McGuire describes the problem that has resulted from our always on stream of updates. For him, reading 4 books in one year was a struggle and a sign that the issue is serious.
His description of the nature of the problem may resonate with a lot of us:
I’ve been finding it harder and harder to concentrate on words, sentences, paragraphs. Let alone chapters. Chapters often have page after page of paragraphs. It just seems such an awful lot of words to concentrate on, on their own, without something else happening.
His, and others, premise is that this is a chemical reaction, one that results in a change of habits:
So, every new email you get gives you a little flood of dopamine. Every little flood of dopamine reinforces your brain’s memory that checking email gives a flood of dopamine. And our brains are programmed to seek out things that will give us little floods of dopamine. Further, these patterns of behaviour start creating neural pathways, so that they become unconscious habits: Work on something important, brain itch, check email, dopamine, refresh, dopamine, check Twitter, dopamine, back to work. Over and over, and each time the habit becomes more ingrained in the actual structures of our brains.
Last, he moves on to describe why books are important.
There is a slowness, a forced reflection required by the medium that is unique.
I concur in large part. I've gotten to the place where Twitter and other digital forms of consumption have taken more of a back seat in my life. But reading books is sadly not filling in the gap. My life is busy and opportunities to read are few. Yet, when the time comes, I do find it difficult to concentrate for longer stretches.
I'm just finishing up teaching a six week class on Christian disciplines. On the discipline of study, I shared Richard Foster's thoughts on how to study books (from his book Celebration of Discipline):
- understand: what is the author saying
- interpret: what does the author mean
- evaluate: is the author right or wrong
That's what I love about books (good ones anyway). The entire process takes time. There's no secondary stream of content to peruse when you finish reading. Rather, you have the opportunity to ponder what you've read, how you've thought about the subject in the past, and how what you've read might change how you live going forward.
But you have to create those opportunities. Read with intention.