Creating a more stable base for attention

One reason we need to create periods of rest is to counteract some of the effects of modern society on the brain, and nurture habits of stability and patience.

Nicholas Carr is the author of the book, The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to our Brains. In it he outlines some of the ways that modern technologies are not only affecting our ability to pay attention but are also changing our brains. These technologies tend to fragment our attention, speeding up our need to know and plan, thus reducing our capacity to just rest in ourselves and our own space. This can increase the sense that our  day to day is running from here to there, with no time for ourselves, just a succession of  things to get done.

In an interview with CNN he said, “I became aware of changes in my own thinking a couple of years ago….… I came to realize [that] I was losing my ability to pay deep attention to one thing over a long period of time. When I’d sit down to read a book, for instance, I was only able to sustain my concentration for a page or two. My mind would begin to crave stimulation and distraction — it wanted to click on links, jump from page to page, check email, do some Googling….The habits of mind the net encouraged had become my dominant habits of mind.

It is no surprise that when we have an activity that demands patience and perseverence, we find it difficult to concentrate, missing the inner quiet needed for sustained activities. We become what we practice: If we are continually practicing distraction and small, bite-sized bursts of information, the brain can get used to distraction. If we practice resting and calm, the brain can become more calm.  As Carr continues: Other people – and I’m one of them –  believe that while it’s important to be able to skim and scan and multitask, our deepest and most valuable thinking requires a calm and attentive mind. If you exist in a perpetual state of distractedness, you’ll never tap into the deepest sources of human insight and creativity.

Once again, we can learn from nature in these days. Real growth takes time and is patient. As the proverb reminds us  “Mighty oaks from tiny acorns grow”, not immediately, but slowly, over time. Let us create gentle periods of less “productive”, more reflective activities – walking, reading, reflecting, meditating – and thus nurture other habits of mind.


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