The Internet - Why It's So Hard To Focus

Ok. Time to start my essay.

Click Google Chrome. "American Civil War Facts" search into Google. Click Wikipedia Page. Read opening paragraph. Skim through hyperlinks to find relevant information. American Civil War started in 1865.

BING! Stacy tagged you in a photo on Facebook. Click on photo. Read comments. Click on Stacy's profile. Browse through 7 photos. Clark has sent you a message. Check message. A funny GIF. Find the correct GIF to reply with. Onto Facebook Newsfeed. Scroll. Scroll. Scroll. Hilarious Youtube video. Click.

Finish video. Another funny video in the recommended section on Youtube. Click. Read through comments on video.

Ok back to the essay. Google search "Why did the American Civil War start?" Click first article. Read first two paragraphs and take notes. Article goes off topic. Back to search results. Next article. This article is boring.

BING! @SarahisAwesome Mentioned you on Twitter. Check Sarah's tweet. Tweet back to Sarah. Scroll through Sarah's old tweets. 

Alright. Back to the essay. Google Search. "How long did the American Civil war last for?". Open wikipedia page. Skim, skim skim skim. Ah! The American Civil War lasted for 4 years. Time to write the opening para..

BING! Clark has replied to your message. Clark says "What you up to? :D" You reply to Clark: "Working hard on my essay, you?"

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If you use the internet, the chances are high that you struggle to focus on one thing for an extended period of time.

You can say that we choose for ourselves what we look at online. Only it doesn't feel that way at all. It feels more like we don't have the power to freely choose our online behaviour. We are not giving our attention as we intend or would like to. Instead, our attention is pulled against our will to places we don't want to go.

Just ask anybody who's been through a University course in the last 5 years. You head to the library to start your 10000 word dissertation and wake up an hour later realising you spent the entire time stalking your friends on Facebook, scrolling through Twitter and getting lost down a Youtube rabbit hole. 

Is that how you WANTED to spend the last hour? No it's not. You desperately want to write a kickass dissertation and get yourself a solid degree. 

But you couldn't do it. 

Now you can say that any student that can't hold their attention for a single hour had no hope in the first place. It's about self-discipline, you might say. Maybe, if you're from the older generation, you might consider how the millenial generation is so terribly lazy, afraid of hard work and want everything handed to them. 

What very few people mention, however, is that the internet actually changes the neurological structure of your brain.

HOW THE INTERNET CHANGES YOUR BRAIN

No this isn't a visual representation of an LSD trip

No this isn't a visual representation of an LSD trip

For a long time we thought that the structure of the brain was fixed from around age 20 onwards. We now know this to be false.

Throughout your entire life your brain is constantly adapting itself to become better and better at what you expose it to. If you play guitar for 2 hours a day for 5 years, your brain will create strong synaptic pathways that make you more and more competent at playing the guitar.

The same is also true for using the internet.

In 2018, the average adult (In America) spends 24 Hours on the internet every single week. 

So the synaptic pathways the brain builds for using the internet are STRONG.

Now you have to ask, what kind of synaptic pathways are these? What kind of behaviour does the internet encourage?

 

QUICK PIECES OF INFORMATION AND A FOCUS THAT IS CONSTANTLY MOVING FROM ONE THING TO ANOTHER.

 

This is the environment your brain is adapting to when you use the internet.

And so even when you're not using the internet, your brain still wants to collect information the same way.

Sit down to read a book and you might find yourself already looking for distractions after 2 pages. Switch your phone off for an hour to focus on something and you may find yourself straining not to turn it back on after 10 minutes. 

Your brain is expecting to use the same synaptic pathways as it does while using the internet.

And let's make one thing clear: Multi-tasking is a myth.

There is no multi-tasking, only hopping from one single task to the next in quick succession. 

Studies have shown that attempting to "multi-task" even on 2 tasks, let alone 7 or 8, results in a dramatic drop in ability and inevitably results in mistakes and a poor quality of work. 

The problem is, even with it's incredible access to an infinite amount of information, the internet still is NOT the best way to learn new information.

 

THE BOOK IS STILL THE BEST WAY TO LEARN

Reading is better than internet Browsing.jpg

When we read a book there is no multi-tasking. You are focused on a single subject for an extended period of time. And your mind will relax into the book. 

Not only that, but a book will give you a FULL UNDERSTANDING of a subject rather than a SUPERFICIAL ONE. 

Because only when your mind has explored the subject in detail and had a chance to reflect on the information can you genuinely have an understanding of something. 

The internet makes this kind of deep learning difficult. 

 

WHEN WE USE THE INTERNET TO UNDERSTAND A NEW SUBJECT, WE DON'T SEE THE FOREST, WE DON'T EVEN SEE THE TREES. WE SEE ONLY TWIGS AND LEAVES. 

 

Research on the internet generally leaves you with knowledge of a few important facts and a few concepts. But nothing more.

Aside from the strong pull coming from the distractions of social media and online video, reading online encourages distraction and short bursts of information.

Read through one article and included will be hyperlinks to several other articles.

And articles and blog posts benefit financially from you hopping around from one page to the next rather than staying on a single page for an extended period of time. Each click on a new article means a new set of advertisements are being shown to the user and therefore more profit for the website owner. 

Books don't have this problem. In fact, books don't even have advertisements. 

(The Internet also has major problems with Filter Bubbles preventing you from seeing a wide variety of information)

The biggest problem with all this is that the information you see on the internet is rarely ever transferred to long-term memory. When you browse online the information generally enters the short-term memory and leaves again within a matter of minutes.

TO PUT IT SIMPLY, ALMOST ALL OF THE TIME YOU SPEND ON THE INTERNET IS COMPLETELY FORGOTTEN.

Think back to yesterday. What do you remember about the time you spent on the internet?

Exactly.

 

EVERYTHING IS DONE ON THE SAME DEVICE

 

You can't hide from the internet.

In 2018, the internet is necessary for your work life, your social life, your education, your news, your finances. Everything basically.

It's interwoven into every aspect of your life.

To avoid the internet would be to avoid society. Essentially you would need to live off the grid in the mountains somewhere.

Fuck you Internet

Fuck you Internet

While your laptop contains an infinite amount of information to learn from, it also contains an infinite number of ways to WASTE YOUR TIME:

The Facebook newsfeed, clickbait articles, videos of dogs doing funny things, Twitter debates, pointless Google searches, Farmville, memes, celebrity slideshows, and PORNOGRAPHY. 

All of these things provide a nice dose of the addictive brain chemical dopamine. And all of these things can be accessed in less than a second with the simple click of the mouse.

The distractions are simply too accessible.

It's no surprise that everybody struggles with this. Students, teachers, office workers, writers, music producers, graphic designers, video editors.

One UK politician was almost fired for playing Candy Crush Saga during a Work and Pensions committee hearing. 

(Another major form of distraction being Mobile Games)

 

THE INTERNET IS THE NEW TELEVISION

 

We learn from the previous generations.

We listen to the regrets and truths uttered by those of the generation that came before us.

"I wish I had travelled more"

"I wish I had told ____ that I love him/her"

" I wish I had pursued my dream career in _______"

And here's statement you may find coming from those who lived their youth between 1970-2000.

"I WASTED MY LIFE WATCHING TELEVISION"

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You've heard about the life wasted working a 9-5 job in an office, coming home then spending the rest of the evening sat in front of the TV eating Cheetos. Monday to Friday. Day in day out. Until suddenly you wake up with your gut hanging over your belt buckle at 50 years old wondering what happened to your life.

The main danger of the Television is it's very nature encourages passivity.

You sit and watch.

This encourages the synaptic pathways in your brain to adapt to a lifestyle of passivity. Essentially, it dumbs you down on the neurological level. When your parents told you "That TV will rot your brain!", they had a point.

If there's one thing the baby boomer generation learned it's that you will  DEEPLY regret spending  so much time in front of the TV. This collective wisdom has been passed on. As a generation, many of us millennials have it burned into our brain that spending 6 hours a night watching TV is not a good idea. 

We've learnt this through advice from our parents and teachers. But more than that, we've learnt it from the regrets of the previous generation.

But technology changes fast.

And we have a new beast to battle with now.

THE INTERNET IS THE TELEVISION OF OUR GENERATION

As the internet generation begins to reach their 30s and 40s, you can be sure that you'll soon begin to hear the following statement:

"I wasted my life on the internet" 

You might find yourself warning your children "That internet will rot your brain". And you'd have a point. 

Of course, just like the television it's a case of using the technology wisely and understanding the potential effects it may have on you. 

When you think of the people throughout history who really achieved something: Albert Einstein, Nelson Mandela, Plato, Leonardo Da Vinci, William Shakespeare, you'll notice they all had one thing in common.

The ability to focus for an extended period of time.

Keep that in mind next time you spend an entire afternoon on Youtube.

Reading List:

The Shallows: What the internet is doing to our brain by Nicholas Carr