"War and Peace" tortured me: Facebook, email and the neuroscience of always being distracted

I used to be able to read for hours without digital interruption. Now? That's just funny. I want my focus back!


Michael Harris
August 17, 2014 4:00PM (UTC)
This essay is adapted from "The End of Absence"

I’m enough of a distraction addict that a low-level ambient guilt about not getting my real work done hovers around me for most of the day. And this distractible quality in me pervades every part of my life. The distractions—What am I making for dinner?, Who was that woman in "Fargo"?, or, quite commonly, What else should I be reading?—are invariably things that can wait. What, I wonder, would I be capable of doing if I weren’t constantly worrying about what I ought to be doing?

And who is this frumpy thirty-something man who has tried to read "War and Peace" five times, never making it past the garden gate? I took the tome down from the shelf this morning and frowned again at those sad little dog-ears near the fifty-page mark.

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* * *

Are the luxuries of time on which deep reading is reliant available to us anymore? Even the attention we deign to give to our distractions, those frissons, is narrowing.

It’s important to note this slippage. As a child, I would read for hours in bed without the possibility of a single digital interruption. Even the phone (which was anchored by wires to the kitchen wall downstairs) was generally mute after dinner. Our two hours of permitted television would come to an end, and I would seek out the solitary refuge of a novel. And deep reading (as opposed to reading a Tumblr feed) was a true refuge. What I liked best about that absorbing act was the fact books became a world unto themselves, one that I (an otherwise powerless kid) had some control over. There was a childish pleasure in holding the mysterious object in my hands; in preparing for the story’s finale by monitoring what Austen called a “tell-tale compression of the pages”; in proceeding through some perfect sequence of plot points that bested by far the awkward happenstance of real life.

The physical book, held, knowable, became a small mental apartment I could have dominion over, something that was alive because of my attention and then lived in me.

But now . . . that thankful retreat, where my child-self could become so lost, seems unavailable to me. Today there is no room in my house, no block in my city, where I am unreachable.

Eventually, if we start giving them a chance, moments of absence reappear, and we can pick them up if we like. One appeared this morning, when my partner flew to Paris. He’ll be gone for two weeks. I’ll miss him, but this is also my big break.

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I’ve taken "War and Peace" back down off the shelf. It’s sitting beside my computer as I write these lines—accusatory as some attention-starved pet.

You and me, old friend. You, me, and two weeks. I open the book, I shut the book, and I open the book again. The ink swirls up at me. This is hard. Why is this so hard?

* * *

Dr. Douglas Gentile, a friendly professor at Iowa State University, recently commiserated with me about my pathetic attention span. “It’s me, too, of course,” he said. “When I try to write a paper, I can’t keep from checking my e-mail every five minutes. Even though I know it’s actually making me less productive.” This failing is especially worrying for Gentile because he happens to be one of the world’s leading authorities on the effects of media on the brains of the young. “I know, I know! I know all the research on multitasking. I can tell you absolutely that everyone who thinks they’re good at multitasking is wrong. We know that in fact it’s those who think they’re good at multitasking who are the least productive when they multitask.”

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The brain itself is not, whatever we may like to believe, a multitasking device. And that is where our problem begins. Your brain does a certain amount of parallel processing in order to synthesize auditory and visual information into a single understanding of the world around you, but the brain’s attention is itself only a spotlight, capable of shining on one thing at a time. So the very word multitask is a misnomer. There is rapid-shifting minitasking, there is lame-spasms-of-effort-tasking, but there is, alas, no such thing as multitasking. “When we think we’re multitasking,” says Gentile, “we’re actually multiswitching.”

We can hardly blame ourselves for being enraptured by the promise of multitasking, though. Computers—like televisions before them—tap into a very basic brain function called an “orienting response.” Orienting responses served us well in the wilderness of our species’ early years. When the light changes in your peripheral vision, you must look at it because that could be the shadow of something that’s about to eat you. If a twig snaps behind you, ditto. Having evolved in an environment rife with danger and uncertainty, we are hardwired to always default to fast-paced shifts in focus. Orienting responses are the brain’s ever-armed alarm system and cannot be ignored.

Gentile believes it’s time for a renaissance in our understanding of mental health. To begin with, just as we can’t accept our body’s cravings for chocolate cake at face value, neither can we any longer afford to indulge the automatic desires our brains harbor for distraction.

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 * * *

It’s not merely difficult at first. It’s torture. I slump into the book, reread sentences, entire paragraphs. I get through two pages and then stop to check my e-mail—and down the rabbit hole I go. After all, one does not read "War and Peace" so much as suffer through it. It doesn’t help that the world at large, being so divorced from such pursuits, is often aggressive toward those who drop away into single-subject attention wells. People don’t like it when you read "War and Peace." It’s too long, too boring, not worth the effort. And you’re elitist for trying.

In order to finish the thing in the two weeks I have allotted myself, I must read one hundred pages each day without fail. If something distracts me from my day’s reading—a friend in the hospital, a magazine assignment, sunshine—I must read two hundred pages on the following day. I’ve read at this pace before, in my university days, but that was years ago and I’ve been steadily down-training my brain ever since.

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* * *

Another week has passed—my "War and Peace" struggle continues. I’ve realized now that the subject of my distraction is far more likely to be something I need to look at than something I need to do. There have always been activities—dishes, gardening, sex, shopping—that derail whatever purpose we’ve assigned to ourselves on a given day. What’s different now is the addition of so much content that we passively consume.

Only this morning I watched a boy break down crying on "X Factor," then regain his courage and belt out a half-decent rendition of  Beyoncé’s “Listen”; next I looked up the original Beyoncé video and played it twice while reading the first few paragraphs of a story about the humanity of child soldiers; then I switched to a Nina Simone playlist prepared for me by Songza, which played while I flipped through a slide show of American soldiers seeing their dogs for the first time in years; and so on, ad nauseam. Until I shook I out of this funk and tried to remember what I’d sat down to work on in the first place.

* * *

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If I’m to break from our culture of distraction, I’m going to need practical advice, not just depressing statistics. To that end, I switch gears and decide to stop talking to scientists for a while; I need to talk to someone who deals with attention and productivity in the so-called real world. Someone with a big smile and tailored suits such as organizational guru Peter Bregman. He runs a global consulting firm that gets CEOs to unleash the potential of their workers, and he’s also the author of the acclaimed business book 18 Minutes, which counsels readers to take a minute out of every work hour (plus five minutes at the start and end of the day) to do nothing but set an intention.

Bregman told me he sets his watch to beep every hour as a reminder that it’s time to right his course again. Aside from the intention setting, Bregman counsels no more than three e-mail check-ins a day. This notion of batch processing was anathema to someone like me, used to checking my in-box so constantly, particularly when my work feels stuck. “It’s incredibly inefficient to switch back and forth,” said Bregman, echoing every scientist I’d spoken to on multitasking. “Besides, e-mail is, actually, just about the least efficient mode of conversation you can have. And what we know about multitasking is that, frankly, you can’t. You just derail.”

“I just always feel I’m missing something important,” I said. “And that’s precisely why we lose hours every day, that fear.” Bregman argues that it’s people who can get ahead of that fear who end up excelling in the business world that he spends his own days in. “I think everyone is more distractible today than we used to be. It’s a very hard thing to fix. And as people become more distracted, we know they’re actually doing less, getting less done. Your efforts just leak out. And those who aren’t—aren’t leaking—are going to be the most successful.”

I hate that I leak. But there’s a religious certainty required in order to devote yourself to one thing while cutting off the rest of the world. We don’t know that the inbox is emergency-free, we don’t know that the work we’re doing is the work we ought to be doing. But we can’t move forward in a sane way without having some faith in the moment we’ve committed to. “You need to decide that things don’t matter as much as you might think they matter,” Bregman suggested as I told him about my flitting ways. And that made me think there might be a connection between the responsibility-free days of my youth and that earlier self’s ability to concentrate. My young self had nowhere else to be, no permanent anxiety nagging at his conscience. Could I return to that sense of ease? Could I simply be where I was and not seek out a shifting plurality to fill up my time?

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* * *

It happened softly and without my really noticing.

As I wore a deeper groove into the cushions of my sofa, so the book I was holding wore a groove into my (equally soft) mind. Moments of total absence began to take hold more often; I remembered what it was like to be lost entirely in a well-spun narrative. There was the scene where Anna Mikhailovna begs so pitifully for a little money, hoping to send her son to war properly dressed. And there were, increasingly, more like it. More moments where the world around me dropped away and I was properly absorbed. A “causeless springtime feeling of joy” overtakes Prince Andrei; a tearful Pierre sees in a comet his last shimmering hope; Emperor Napoleon takes his troops into the heart of Russia, oblivious to the coming winter that will destroy them all…

It takes a week or so for withdrawal symptoms to work through a heroin addict’s body. While I wouldn’t pretend to compare severity here, doubtless we need patience, too, when we deprive ourselves of the manic digital distractions we’ve grown addicted to.

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That’s how it was with my Tolstoy and me. The periods without distraction grew longer, I settled into the sofa and couldn’t hear the phone, couldn’t hear the ghost-buzz of something else to do. I’m teaching myself to slip away from the world again.

* * *

Yesterday I fell asleep on the sofa with a few dozen pages of "War and Peace" to go. I could hear my cell phone buzzing from its perch on top of the piano. I saw the glowing green eye of my Cyclops modem as it broadcast potential distraction all around. But on I went past the turgid military campaigns and past the fretting of Russian princesses, until sleep finally claimed me and my head, exhausted, dreamed of nothing at all. This morning I finished the thing at last. The clean edges of its thirteen hundred pages have been ruffled down into a paper cabbage, the cover is pilled from the time I dropped it in the bath. Holding the thing aloft, trophy style, I notice the book is slightly larger than it was before I read it.

It’s only after the book is laid down, and I’ve quietly showered and shaved, that I realize I haven’t checked my e-mail today. The thought of that duty comes down on me like an anvil.

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Instead, I lie back on the sofa and think some more about my favorite reader Milton - about his own anxieties around reading. By the mid-1650s, he had suffered that larger removal from the crowds, he had lost his vision entirely and could not read at all—at least not with his own eyes. From within this new solitude, he worried that he could no longer meet his potential. One sonnet, written shortly after the loss of his vision, begins:

When I consider how my light is spent,

Ere half my days, in this dark world and wide, and that one Talent

which is death to hide Lodged with me useless . . .

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Yet from that position, in the greatest of caves, he began producing his greatest work. The epic "Paradise Lost," a totemic feat of concentration, was dictated to aides, including his three daughters.

Milton already knew, after all, the great value in removing himself from the rush of the world, so perhaps those anxieties around his blindness never had a hope of dominating his mind. I, on the other hand, and all my peers, must make a constant study of concentration itself. I slot my ragged "War and Peace" back on the shelf. It left its marks on me the same way I left my marks on it (I feel awake as a man dragged across barnacles on the bottom of some ocean). I think: This is where I was most alive, most happy. How did I go from loving that absence to being tortured by it? How can I learn to love that absence again?

This essay is adapted from "The End of Absence" by Michael Harris, published by Current / Penguin Random House.


Michael Harris

Michael Harris is the author of “Solitude: In Pursuit of a Singular Life in a Crowded World,” now out from St. Martin’s Press.   

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