Statistically most of you who clicked on this link won’t read it to the end. Technically your brain has been fried by years of bad television, video games, and possibly the worst of all, the Internet. So now you can’t concentrate and pay attention. In fact, you would rather be wildly clicking on more links, refreshing your Facebook, and (God forbid if you are a man) posting things to Pinterest. Before you challenge me to a lengthy written debate, (yeah right, you’re probably getting ready to exit because your attention span of nine seconds is nearly expired) let me ask you a question. When was the last time you read a serious book? A whole, complete, entire, hundred page or more, honest to goodness, book? (This is where my one of my awesome friends will get excited and point out the Hunger Games book he read, sorry buddy, one teenage novella per year doesn’t count).
With a quick Google search I found countless blogs, newspapers, and scholarly articles claiming the same thing, that my generation, and especially those youngest in it, can hardly read. There are hundreds of articles by parents demising their child’s attention deficit when it comes to big books and big ideas. Apparently kids today can’t pay attention to anything for a long time (strangely enough the only time-consuming activity immune is Call of Duty). There are innumerable forums filled with students begging for help, claiming they cannot concentrate and pay attention to lengthy books, big ideas, and complex concepts. A recent study named “The Twilight Generation Can’t Read” conducted by the Association of Literary Scholars, Critics, and Writers claims that the ability to engage long books and complex ideas is decreasing.
As (ironic) evidence, at least half of those who clicked this article are already gone. The people who need it most, are the least likely to read it. But you few who can still read, don’t stop now, there is a war going on for your brain. Bear with me for 5 minutes and we shall take a very simple (not technical; we don’t want to scare you now, do we?) peek at the radical reprogramming of our brains, and see what this means for Christians.
MY BRAIN IS CHANGING?!
I am a hypocrite. However, this is not one of those times. The question I asked you about books, I have asked myself as well and it has fundamentally challenged me. I have somewhere near twenty books that I am currently in the middle of “reading.” Except what I mean by reading is that I get really excited about a book, read a chapter until I find some idea that fascinates me and my brain magically whisks itself to the internet on another relentless pursuit of knowledge and information. Except that pursuit often finds itself on Facebook looking at pictures of kittens (it’s not my fault though, my wife insists on posting them to my Facebook page in hopes that I would buy her one or two; and by one or two she means hundreds.) See, I can’t even stay on topic… Facebook and kittens… where was I?
My brain is different than it was when I was younger, but not because of the obvious reasons such as age. Instead, it has been altered by information overload, particularly promoted by the internet. Dr. Small, a UCLA professor of psychology, concludes that “The current explosion of digital technology not only is changing the way we live and communicate, but is rapidly and profoundly altering our brains.” (1) Our brains have the propensity to rewire themselves to accomplish tasks that we do often and repeatedly. It’s called learning. If you practice the violin for a long time, your brain will rewire itself to read music and convert that into bodily movement with the bow. Unfortunately, we don’t have the attention span to practice violin, the only thing we are practicing is the act of being distracted. The main thing we are doing consistently is not paying attention to something for long enough. And our brains are learning.
According to the New York Times, many scientists say that “people’s ability to focus is being undermined by bursts of information.” (2) Indeed, look at one of the most populated hangouts on the internet, Facebook, and you will see hundreds of items constantly screaming for your attention. Every new link, status update, photo, and Youtube video, is the equivalent of modern day street peddlers. Imagine walking into a market filled with thousands of people, and being surrounded by a mob, all who begin to stick their product in your face and shout “look at this.” How could you ever choose one to focus on? What would you do? Likely take a quick cursory overview of everything, but not really dig deep down and carefully scrutinize one item. This is because you have information overload. This is exactly what is happening to my generation with reading, researchers have found that “users are not reading online in the traditional sense; indeed there are signs that new forms of “reading” are emerging as users “power browse” horizontally through titles, contents pages and abstracts going for quick wins.” (3) Our brains are no longer able to tackle an idea, a concept, a book, instead we consume tiny bits of everything, constantly abandoning one pursuit in search of another that takes up our fancy.
According to BBC news, “most online viewers spend less than 60 seconds at an average site” which, unfortunately means that only non average users are even reading this. In the same article express from MIT and Nottingham University there is consensus that “Our attention span gets affected by the way we do things” and the article states that the addictive nature of web browsing is reducing our attentions spans, thereby making us like goldfish, for we begin to share equally short attention spans. (4)
WHY SHOULD CHRISTIANS CARE?
It may be true that as internet speeds increase, our attention spans decrease, but what does it have to do with Christianity and the Bible? The answer is quick and simple, the Bible, believe it or not, is hard to understand and requires one to spend a lot of time and attention wrestling with big ideas, instead of sporadically jumping around but never delving deep. Now since you don’t believe me and are already coming up with emotional arguments that prove I am a (insert favorite rude word) heretic, let me prove it to you. I offer two simple example that should give undeniable evidence for my statement.
1. Peter, the guy who started the church and actually wrote parts of the Bible (pretty good street cred) actually thought so. In one of his (Holy Spirit inspired) writings, Peter specifically focuses of the epistles (letters) of Apostle Paul and says “There are some things in them that are hard to understand which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other Scriptures.” (2 Pet 3:16). Listen guys and girls, if Peter says it, I believe it.
2. Take a look at our contemporary Christianity. There are a great many varieties in what we believe, now if all of the Bible were so simple and obvious, then surely we would agree on everything. Instead many unorthodox groups twist things to their own destruction and many orthodox groups agree on essentials, but disagree on minor issues. In my humble opinion, most of the very dangerous heresies that are claimed to be biblical, are precisely because someone didn’t delve deep enough, but jumped to a few places and grabbed quick mix mash of ideas.
First off, I salute the very few of you who had the endurance to read to the end (and the clever ones who skipped to the last paragraph to get a quick summary.) Being able to spend serious time on one idea is like sitting down and eating a whole nutritional meal. Unfortunately we often skip around and nibble a tiny bit of whatever has an attractive wrapper, and thus we find ourselves not eating a healthy diet. All of the great men and women of this world, both in the secular and the sacred realms, were those who could devote themselves to something important. All of the great men who defended the faith, shepherded Christs flock, wrote great Christian classics, and preached Biblical sermons were those whose brains were wired to focus and study. It is so unfortunate that we have slowly rewired our brains and destroyed our attention span. A friend of mine once spoke to me about this blog, and he jokingly asked me to put everything into video form. According to him, he could not bring himself to look at a big block of text and actually read it. Indeed, how could it be possible with all the flashing links, pictures, and news all over the internet. So here and now I encourage you to join with me in rejecting distractions and embracing the beautiful art of paying attention to the big ideas, big books, our neighbors and our God.
Anyways, I’ve already paid attention far too long, time to go click on pictures of kittens.
1 Carr, Nicholas “The Web Shatters Focus, Rewires Brains”. Wired.com. 2010-05-24. Retrieved 2012-04-12.)
2 Richtel, Matt “Attached to Technology and Paying a Price”. The New York Times. 2010-06-06. Retrieved 2012-04-12
3 Naughton, Joel Thanks, Gutenberg – but we’re too pressed for time to read Global University News. Retrieved 2012-04-12
4 “Turning into Digital Goldfish.” BBC News. BBC, 22 Feb. 2002. Retrieved 2012-04-12