I just try to concentrate on concentrating – Martina Navratilova
I’m having trouble concentrating. Every day I have a load of stuff I feel I ought to read before I start work (e.g. e-mails, RSS feeds, blogs) and sometimes I find myself looking at the words and realising that nothing is going in. I’ve just tried to read a poem by my friend, Dave King. Dave’s on a roll at the moment and every day of late there’s been a new poem waiting for me when I open up my feedreader and for the past few days I’ve found myself unable to read them. It’s not as if he’s started writing in a foreign language or anything, it’s just that I find myself looking at the words and nothing is going in. They’re just words on a page. Now usually I like Dave’s poems – they’re never less than readable and sometimes even quite brilliant – and he has hundreds of readers and so I don’t obsess about passing a comment if I can’t think of anything better to say than, “Great poem, Dave,” but I’m feeling a bit guilty because I can’t read today’s poem. I started to read it but I’m finding myself unable to focus on the words. I’ve had a good night’s sleep, in fact over the past few weeks I’ve finally managed to regulate my sleep pattern – I go to bed at about 11pm and wake up by 8am which means I’m getting my regulation eight hours a day more of less. So shouldn’t be tired even if I feel tired. I can’t be tired. So why can’t I concentrate?
Concentration has been defined as "the ability to direct one's thinking in whatever direction one would intend". I think that’s a little simplistic. I can direct my thinking towards Dave’s poem well enough. It’s getting the poem to register that I’m having a problem with; we’re talking degrees of attention.
Our ability to concentrate depends on a variety of factors:
- enthusiasm for the task
- skill at doing the task
- our emotional and physical state
- our psychological state
- our environment
I don’t have anything else on my mind especially. I’m not distracted. Even the bird’s being reasonably quiet at the moment – he’s hanging off the edge of a picture frame hammering the wall which is good for him (yesterday we had about six hours of car alarm practice). I’m playing a nice floaty score by Ennio Morricone, nothing bombastic or even especially melodic to be honest, the room is bright enough and warm enough without being so warm that I want to nod off and I’ve been fed and watered; my hunger has been assuaged but I’ve also not eaten so much that I feel the need for a wee kip. So, why can’t I get my head around this poem? Okay, I do have a bit of a headache but I’ve had a headache now for several weeks; other than that I have no more aches than I usually have. I’m used to working through headaches and even if I’m in real pain I’d rather be occupied than lie around feeling sorry for myself. My glasses need a clean. So, let’s go and give them a wash. [Short recess whilst glasses are washed and dried.] What else? My chair is comfortable. I’m not unhappy. I’m perfectly capable of reading and understanding one of Dave’s poems so we’re left with the top two: lack of commitment and enthusiasm. What’s the difference?
Commit: to pledge oneself to a position on an issue or question
Enthusiasm: absorbing or controlling possession of the mind by any interest or pursuit; lively interest
Okay, so commitment is more akin to duty whereas enthusiasm is ones attitude towards that duty. When my dad died I faithfully went over and mowed my mother’s garden lawn even though I hate all aspects of gardening. And I did the job to the best of my ability but I can’t pretend I had any enthusiasm for the job.
Okay I don’t feel duty bound to read Dave’s poem but I do feel a certain loyalty. Now as regards whether his poem will be of any interest to me I’d really have to read it first. Most of his stuff is interesting but I’m not interested in everything he writes about, even if he writes about it in an interesting way. I think that’s the mark of a truly great writer, the ability to take any subject and make it interesting. Brautigan is one like that. What he lacks in technical ability he makes up in inventiveness and I’m pretty sure that I could read a new poem by him just now with no problem.
For starts it would probably be shorter than Dave’s poem. Dave doesn’t write epics but he does write poems longer than I generally enjoy and if they were by any other writer I might not even try to read them. Today’s poem is 57 lines long but they’re nice short lines, 272 words in total excluding the title. Here’s a link to the poem. The average reading rate is between 200 and 250 words per minute so what are we talking about here? About 1 minute and 20 seconds. That’s not much time out of anyone’s life. Surely I can get my act together for 80 seconds.
Yes, but it’s when those 80 seconds fit into the grand scheme of things. I’ve been sitting at my computer for four hours. That’s four hours I’ve been reading and replying to e-mails, reading and commenting on blogs and working on this post. It’s nearly lunchtime. Perhaps this wasn’t the best time to try and concentrate on one of Dave’s (or anyone else’s) poems.
Wikipedia doesn’t have an article on concentration. But it has one on attention. It includes a clinical model of attention as proposed by Professors McKay Moore Sohlberg and Catherine A. Mateer:
The ability to respond discretely to specific visual, auditory or tactile stimuli.
The ability to maintain a consistent behavioural response during continuous and repetitive activity.
The ability to maintain a behavioural or cognitive set in the face of distracting or competing stimuli. Therefore it incorporates the notion of "freedom from distractibility."
The ability of mental flexibility that allows individuals to shift their focus of attention and move between tasks having different cognitive requirements.
This is the highest level of attention and it refers to the ability to respond simultaneously to multiple tasks or multiple task demands.
and, of course, they ended up with a list of things that work against us giving things our full attention and devised solutions to the problems:
Reduce distraction, facilitate organisation
Improved context for cognitive processing
Cognitive exercises, generalisation training
Improved processing efficiency, increased self awareness
Orienting, pacing, key ideas log
Increased sense of self-control, personal empowerment
Develop use of lists, calendars, organisers
Reduced reliance on internal attention and memory systems
Education, relaxation training, psychotherapy
Decreased anxiety and depression, increased self-esteem
(See Improving Attention and Managing Attentional Problems by McKay Moore Sohlberg and Catherine A. Mateer.)
Effectiveness is dependent on more than commitment and/or enthusiasm. No matter how committed or enthused I was I’m never going to climb to the top of Mount Everest. But reading a poem and ascending the world’s highest mountain have more in common than you might imagine. They both require focus and how long we can focus on something is something that you can put a time limit on. We’re talking here about our attention span,
Let’s just clarify two terms before we go on any further:
- Focused attention is a short-term response to a stimulus that attracts attention. The attention span for this level is very brief, with a maximum span, without any lapse at all, that may be as short as 8 seconds. This level of attention is attracted by a ringing telephone, or other unexpected occurrence. After a few seconds, it is likely that the person will look away, return to a previous task, or think about something else.
- Sustained attention is the level of attention that produces the consistent results on a task over time. If the task is handling fragile objects, such as hand-washing delicate crystal glasses, then a person showing sustained attention will stay on task and will not break any dishes, but a person who loses focus may break a glass or may stop washing the dishes to do something else. Most healthy teenagers and adults are unable to sustain attention on one thing for more than about 20 minutes at a time, although they can choose repeatedly to re-focus on the same thing. This ability to renew attention permits people to "pay attention" to things that last for more than a few minutes, such as long movies. – Wikipedia
Twenty minutes is loads of time to read a poem. But when I’m online I tend to flit from page to page. Most users spend less than a minute on any webpage. I know for a fact that, at the moment, the average user spends 50 seconds on my webpage. And when you’re in that frame of mind it is easy to pass over something that really deserves your time. Imagine going for a run round the block and the coming in and sitting down to read Dave’s poem. I bet you’d have the same problem as me. You need to settle in before you could tackle something that required some processing power. And that is what I think happened this morning with Dave’s poem. I was jumping from this to that to the other and then I was faced with Dave’s poem and I couldn’t stop and give it the attention it needed.
‘Is Google Making Us Stupid?: What the Internet is doing to our brains’ is a magazine article by technology writer Nicholas G. Carr highly critical of the Internet's effect on cognition. Carr's main argument is that the Internet might have detrimental effects on cognition that diminish the capacity for concentration and contemplation. The article, of course, has polarised opinions. But the fact is that we do
- Read just headlines
- Move down the left side of the page quickly
- Ignore anything that looks like an ad
In the article Carr writes:
Bruce Friedman, who blogs regularly about the use of computers in medicine, also has described how the Internet has altered his mental habits. “I now have almost totally lost the ability to read and absorb a longish article on the web or in print,” he wrote earlier this year. A pathologist who has long been on the faculty of the University of Michigan Medical School, Friedman elaborated on his comment in a telephone conversation with me. His thinking, he said, has taken on a “staccato” quality, reflecting the way he quickly scans short passages of text from many sources online. “I can’t read War and Peace anymore,” he admitted. “I’ve lost the ability to do that. Even a blog post of more than three or four paragraphs is too much to absorb. I skim it.”
Now I could never read War and Peace before I started browsing online so no great loss there and I am still able to read fairly involved texts and retain enough information so that I can write decent reviews on them, BUT (and it’s a big but which is why I wrote it in capitals) I can’t jump from one kind of reading to the other. I need to decelerate; cool off, have a bite to eat, watch a bit of TV, do the dishes, do something to change the way my mind has been working.
It’s easier the other way. Last night I finished reading a book and then happily went online and started researching stuff for my review. I didn’t read anything from that point on. I scanned and pasted the links into a Word document to read at my leisure later.
Now some people might say that this is simply lack of self-control. And they would probably be right. But if I finish work a little early and let’s say I’ve got ten minutes before tea, I would never think to try to squeeze in a chapter of my book because I know nothing would go in. I’m all for time reclamation (reading on the bus on train is a given) but there’s reading and there’s staring at pages.
I’m talking about engaging with the text. I said it would take me 80 seconds to read Dave’s poem and on one level that's a fair enough assessment. I could look at every single word (okay I know we read in blocks of words but bear with me) and say that I’d read it but poetry is not like that. You can’t read it like you’re reading this, go, “Got it,” and move onto the next one. Last night there were four new poems in a group I’ve recently been invited to join and I felt burdened looking at them. I often feel burdened when online. Because the demands on my attention are great. I forgot to check Facebook a couple of days ago and when I looked around teatime I had 300 unread posts and I don’t have that many friends.
I feel . . . resentful, yes, that’s the word. I resent that my mind needs to work at such a pace to try and keep pace with this onslaught of information so that when I find myself faced with a 52-line poem – that I would really like to read and will probably actually enjoy once I get round to it – I cannot give it the space it deserves. So the poem is sitting unread at the moment. But there is a danger in that because tomorrow if he’s still churning them out at the rate he is I’ll have another one to read and I’ll end up probably reading neither of them because now it feels like he’s looking for twice the commitment from me and I wasn’t up to half that amount the day before.
Seriously, how much do you remember of what you’ve read online? Yes, it’s interesting at the time. It makes you think or smile. You add a comment or two and pass on and the next day there’s something else to read. There is always something else to read; always, always, always something else to read. If Dave doesn’t post another poem tomorrow then someone else will.
It has been a long time since I crammed for any exam. I actually don’t remember cramming, me being the clever bugger what I was at school, but I understand the concept. I had to study but I enjoyed studying. I never got why some people needed to cram. I put it down to the fact that they’d not studied properly in the first place and this was them paying the price. But some crammed because they didn’t believe they’d studied enough even if they had. Cramming can’t be fun. It’s force-feeing yourself facts. Eating is one of life’s pleasures and even I can enjoy a good meal and time to eat it. But that’s the whole point. Eating is not just about filling your belly any more than making sure you’ve read everything that appears on Facebook and Twitter and all the rest. I never update my status because that would be one more thing for my friends to read and seriously do any of you care that much what the hell I’m doing?
I am beginning to wonder about the effect that trying to stay afloat online is having on me. I try and convince myself that keeping up my online profile is important (and I’m not saying that it’s not) but I remember what I was like before I had my burnout and I didn’t know if I was coming or going or had indeed been and gone. And I don’t fancy ending up back there. This is supposed to be fun. What is the point if it’s not fun?