Ruby Bisson, Words and Literature
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To Sit Still and Read

by Ruby Bisson

I spent a lot of my childhood long past my bedtime curled up in a soft bed, hidden under warm dolphin-print covers, a small torch in my mouth to help me see my book. Most likely it was Roald Dahl’s Matilda (which I read at least 14 times) or the adventures of Julian, Dick, Anne, George and little Timmy in Enid Blyton’s Famous Five series. Dad would come creeping down the hall and I would be so engrossed in my book that I wouldn’t hear him approaching. He’d peak into my room and linger there for a while waiting for me to feel his presence at the end of my bed. I’d fold my page and click off my torch, sometimes he’d take the book from me so I couldn’t sneak a second read. It was a struggle for my parents to tear me away from the characters I had fallen in love with. But this was before the age of wifi and mobile phones.

Maybe I am nostalgic for a time antecedent, but it seems clear that modern society’s inability to concentrate trickles into our social and creative leisure time, the moments we truly want to keep close. For me it has come down to this: I can no longer concentrate on being alone, my mind is hungry for perpetual abstractions.

I find myself unable to crawl into bed or lie on a picnic blanket under a tree or in an armchair and read uninterrupted like I once could. My phone will buzz, the light emanating in the darkness and thus pulling me away from my page. If it doesn’t buzz, then I will lean over, press a few buttons and wonder why it hasn’t yet. Even now I’m flicking between tabs while writing, masquerading my inability to concentrate and the boredom that ensues when I am doing the same thing for more than 10 minutes. I half- heartedly claim to myself that I am ‘looking for inspiration’. And if I’m going to be honest, I’m afraid that these acts are affecting the richness of my thoughts and the potential effulgence of my imagination.

Yet the comfort of brainlessly scrolling through social media feeds instead of concentrating on text is easy and isn’t enough to awaken me from my frustration of doing it. I am an avid reader and I study literature at university, so why am I finding it so difficult? In theory I don’t care about what’s happening online, about what Person A had for breakfast or the latest woes of Person B (who I think I met once about three years ago, right?). Maybe I care more than I’m willing to admit? Maybe I’m simply addicted?

In an article published in the Telegraph in 2010 entitled ‘How the Internet is making us stupid’, Nicholas Carr writes:

In an article in Science last year, Patricia Greenfield, a developmental psychologist who runs UCLA’s Children’s Digital Media Center, reviewed dozens of studies on how different media technologies influence our cognitive abilities. Some of the studies indicated that certain computer tasks, like playing video games, increase the speed at which people can shift their focus among icons and other images on screens. Other studies, however, found that such rapid shifts in focus, even if performed adeptly, result in less rigorous and “more automatic” thinking.

In one experiment at a US university, half a class of students were allowed to use internet-connected laptops during a lecture, while the other had to keep their computers shut. Those who browsed the web performed much worse on a subsequent test of how well they retained the lecture’s content. Earlier experiments revealed that as the number of links in an online document goes up, reading comprehension falls, and as more types of information are placed on a screen, we remember less of what we see.

Greenfield concluded that “every medium develops some cognitive skills at the expense of others”. Our growing use of screen-based media, she said, has strengthened visual-spatial intelligence, which can strengthen the ability to do jobs that involve keeping track of lots of rapidly changing signals, like piloting a plane or monitoring a patient during surgery. But that has been accompanied by “new weaknesses in higher-order cognitive processes,” including “abstract vocabulary, mindfulness, reflection, inductive problem solving, critical thinking, and imagination.” We’re becoming, in a word, shallower.

I know I must take drastic measures in order to regain my ability to concentrate, in order to facilitate the development of a lifestyle that can only be of great benefit in the remote future. The article continues stating this, which ultimately has encouraged me to change my behaviour without hesitation:

The pioneering neuroscientist Michael Merzenich believes our brains are being “massively remodelled” by our ever-intensifying use of the web and related media. In the 1970s and 1980s, Mr Merzenich, now a professor emeritus at the University of California in San Francisco, conducted a famous series of experiments that revealed how extensively and quickly neural circuits change in response to experience. In a conversation late last year, he said that he was profoundly worried about the cognitive consequences of the constant distractions and interruptions the internet bombards us with. The long-term effect on the quality of our intellectual lives, he said, could be “deadly”.

This week I have challenged myself to try a few things in an attempt to regain and re-establish those neuro circuts (can I not actively upkeep both cognitive skills?). When I want to read a book I will turn off my laptop, turn off my phone and clear the space of clutter. I will leave a glass of water by the chair and I’ll open up my novel and I will tell myself that the world will still go on if I’m not connected. I will tell myself that yes, I did reply to that Very Important Email and that Person C and Person D will not die if I don’t reply to their message immediately despite the little ‘Seen’ message that pops up under the text. I do not believe my lack of concentration is unavoidable, I merely think it is a skill one must actively pursue.

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I’m now going to go and actively pursue it.

 

All illustrations by Kiara Mucci, see more on her blog.


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Ruby is a university student who is best known for her creative methods in avoiding class. She prefers to gallivant in forests and under waterfalls, attempt pottery and mixed media and read novels completely unrelated to her degree. She is loud and messy and contemplative and struggles to stay in one place for an extended period of time. You can usually figure out her location via her blog/ Instagram.

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