When it comes to focus, turning on the spotlight may not matter as much as our ability to dim the ambient light.
Nicholas Carr argued on Saturday in The Wall Street Journal that the Internet is making us dumber and on Monday The New York Times had a front-page feature on the mental price we pay for our multi-tasked lifestyles. If we are indeed losing our ability to think deeply, the key to fighting back may lie in a subtlety: focus may be more about our ability to filter out distractions than our ability to home in on the issue at hand.
Carr posed his idea that technology is making us stupid in a 2008 Atlantic cover story and his forthcoming book "The Shallows" is a longer rumination on the theory. According to professors and research cited in The Times piece "the idea that information overload causes distraction was supported by more and more research." And those distractions, according to research Carr cites, are forcing us to change the way we think. Deep thought is losing ground to superficiality.
So, if our multitasking lifestyle causes distraction, and distraction leads to superficial thinking, how do we fight back? Carr offers some advice:
Reading a long sequence of pages helps us develop a rare kind of mental discipline. The innate bias of the human brain, after all, is to be distracted. Our predisposition is to be aware of as much of what's going on around us as possible. Our fast-paced, reflexive shifts in focus were once crucial to our survival.
There is some noteworthy subtlety here. Carr doesn't argue that reading directly increases our ability to focus, but that it "helps us develop a rare kind of mental discipline." That's because focus may be less about highlighting what matters and more about the discipline of ignoring what doesn't.
This view of focus is supported by research. For example, in a 2009 paper published in the well-regarded Journal of Neuroscience, Theodore P. Zanto and Adam Gazzaley, who is cited in The Times piece, reach a similar conclusion. Filtering out the irrelevant, they suggest, may improve accuracy and speed in a short-term memory test, but attention-directing skills may not have a similar effect.
So, abandoning the distractions of technology for a single task may not do as much to retrain our brains as improving our ability to brush those distractions away.