Why can’t we read anymore?

Or, can books save us from what digital does to our brains?

Last year, I read four books.

I am an optimist

Still, I am an optimist. Most nights last year, I got into bed with a book — paper or e — and started. Reading. Read. Ing. One word after the next. A sentence. Two sentences.

Smokers who are the most optimistic about their ability to resist temptation are the most likely to relapse four months later, and overoptimistic dieters are the least likely to lose weight. (Kelly McGonigal: The Willpower Instinct)

It takes a long time to read a book at four sentences per day.

When the people at the New Yorker can’t concentrate long enough to listen to a song all the way through, how are books to survive?

I heard an interview on the New Yorker podcast recently, the host was interviewing writer and photographer, Teju Cole.


One of the challenges in culture now is to, say, listen to a song all the way through, we’re all so distracted, are you still able to kind of give deep attention to things, are you able to sort of engage in culture that way?”

Teju Cole:

“Yes, very much so.”

When I heard this, I felt like hugging the host. He couldn’t even listen to a song all the way through, before getting distracted. Imagine what his bedside pile of books does to him.

Dancing to distraction

What was true of my problems reading books — the unavoidable siren call of the digital hit of new information — was true in the rest of my life as well.

Dopamine and digital

It turns out that digital devices and software are finely tuned to train us to pay attention to them, no matter what else we should be doing. The mechanism, borne out by recent neuroscience studies, is something like this:

  • The promise of new information compels your brain to seek out that dopamine rush.

Pleasing ourselves to death

There is a famous study of rats, wired up with electrodes on their brains. When the rats press a lever, a little charge gets released in part of their brain that stimulates dopamine release. A pleasure lever.

Choices: Part 1 (xkcd)

Why are books important?

When I think back on my life, I can define a set of books that shaped me — intellectually, emotionally, spiritually. Books have always been an escape, a learning experience, a saviour, but beyond this, greater than this, certain books became, over time, a kind of glue that holds together my understanding of the world. I think of them as nodes of knowledge and emotion, nodes that knot together the fabric my self. Books, for me anyway, hold together who I am.

The problems with digital stuff

Recent neuroscience confirms many of the things we sufferers of digital overload know innately. That successful multi-tasking is a myth. Multi-tasking makes us stupider. According to psychologist Glenn Wilson, the cognitive losses from multitasking are equivalent to smoking pot. (UPDATE: thanks to Liza Daly for pointing out that Glenn Wilson has publicly stated that this study was part of a paid PR gig, and misrepresented in the media. See: http://www.drglennwilson.com/Infomania_experiment_for_HP.doc)

Being in a situation where you are trying to concentrate on a task, and an e-mail is sitting unread in your inbox, can reduce your effective IQ by 10 points. (The Organized Mind, by Daniel J Levitin)

It’s worse than that though, because this constant hopping from one thing to another is also exhausting.

It takes more energy to shift your attention from task to task. It takes less energy to focus. That means that people who organize their time in a way that allows them to focus are not only going to get more done, but they’ll be less tired and less neurochemically depleted after doing it. (The Organized Mind, by Daniel J Levitin)

The problem defined

And so, the problem, more or less, is identified:

  1. This digital dopamine addiction means I have trouble focusing: on books, work, family and friends

Oh, and don’t forget about television

We live in a golden age of television, there is no doubt. The stuff being produced these days is very good. And there is a lot of it.

Those who read own the world, and those who watch television lose it. (Werner Herzog)

I don’t know if Werner Herzog is right, but I do know that I would never say about television — even the great stuff, of which there is plenty — what I say about books. There are no television shows that exist as nodes holding together my understanding of the world. My relationship to television is just not the same as it is to books.

And, so, a change

And so, starting in January, I started making some changes. The key ones are:

  1. No reading of random news articles (hard)
  2. No smartphones or computers in the bedroom (easy)
  3. No TV after dinner (it turns out, easy)
  4. Instead, go straight to bed and start reading a book — usually on an eink ereader (it turns out, easy)

books and/on the web: reb.us, pressbooks.com, librivox.org, iambik.com, and a few other bits & bobs.