Mr Pinker, vacuous decrier of this book. I wonder if you might listen in on the salutary tale of what happened to my brain some years ago and the general relevance of this tale to the Internet society in which we now live.
About five years ago I began to be concerned that I was suffering early onset dementia. My concentration span was almost zero. Things I couldn’t do included putting on dinner and remembering I’d done that or following a whole page of Calvin and Hobbes panels. I could no longer play bridge properly, I certainly couldn’t read a book. I couldn’t listen properly to anything people said and certainly couldn’t remember what I had ‘listened’ to.
The person I was living with showed me an article about something called ‘interruption science’ and I realised that my problems emanated from how I was working and also playing. At the time I was doing a lot of work which involved keying something into a search engine and having to wait about 20 seconds for a result. Long enough not to want to wait, not long enough to do anything else properly. I’d flick to other sites, read a sentence, put a bid on ebay…a comment on a blog…and flick back again. My life consisted of 20 second-1 minute bursts of ‘concentration’ flicking backwards and forwards, to and fro. This had such a profound impact on my brain that it was simply no longer able to function properly. The effect on my bridge was stunning. As a good bridge player I should be able to recall after a session all the bids and plays that took place during it. Now I couldn’t even remember them from one second to the next. It was devastating.
Once I understood what the issue was, addressing it wasn’t so difficult. Instead of doing this work for hours at a time I cut it down into much smaller units. I stopped switching from site to site as I waited for my results to show up. I forced myself to sit down with a book for at least one uninterrupted hour each day. Even just these simple steps had immediate impact. The brain is a very forgiving thing. My bridge started recovering. I’d put dinner in the oven AND we’d eat it. This was so much better than before. I can recall one morning waking up and being put out at not being able to remember what the starter I’d baked in the oven had tasted like. That was the sort of thing I couldn’t remember and it was really quite distressing. It is hard to say whether it was good or bad news when I realised what had actually happened. I’d put the starters in the oven and then completely forgotten about them, I realised when I noticed (next morning, remember) the oven was stil on. Well, at least I hadn’t forgotten what they tasted like.
I have never understood how it is that we live in a society where we know – even if we don’t always follow the knowledge – that we need to look after our bodies and we know what that means. Nobody, for example, would jog and think that this took the place of weight training. The body needs a range of different things to keep it in good order.
It shouldn’t be rocket science to understand that the same applies to the brain. But people stupidly think that if they are still working – ‘oh, I use my brain every day’ – that they don’t need to do anything else for it. Nothing could be further from the truth. This applies particularly in our working environment which is typically so stop-start in a way it didn’t used to be. Remember when we thought failure to concentrate on one thing was something that applied to women? Now men do that too and so we have a positive name for it, it’s called multi-tasking. It used to be called ‘women can’t concentrate’. So, whereas in the old days men DID concentrate for long periods of time on one thing – and I’m sure there are still men who do – most men no longer do that any more than women did. Just as a woman did the vacuuming while cooking dinner while wiping a bottom while eating the bit of food baby just chucked up because it’s easier than throwing it away while getting them dressed while bathing then while talking on the phone while shopping while…..so too that is now how men work and play.
Television is designed around the idea – and promotes the idea – that we can’t concentrate for more than a few minutes at a time. Classrooms are organised around it too. I took a class of primary school children for chess some years ago and the teachers who sat in to observe were aghast that I never took any breaks and yet could also observe that children were perfectly capable of thinking about one thing for a long time. They didn’t even know they weren’t having breaks. I took this for granted as a chess player: I’d been raised on being part of one game for 5 hours in a row – and then often enough adjourning, thinking about it for more hours and them coming back to play again. I adored this, really it was one of the best times of my life by far, playing chess. To be absorbed and lost in something for hours upon hours, there is nothing like it. I honestly put it right up there with sex so, you know….
All people should, in the same way they respect their bodies, respect their minds by permitting them proper – workouts – might be the word, a decent run. You do this by any number of means. It could be a difficult Sudoku, a cryptic crossword, a book, chess or maybe bridge. I was asked to write a paper on the connection between staving off Alzheimer’s and playing bridge some years ago and I can assure you that there is a connection between these things. Hardly surprising.
I’m not suggesting that you don’t turn on skype to say hello to your separated loved one in the morning when you wake up. It is simply a matter of balance.
Go here to Jason’s excellent review and responding comments for links to sources including Pinker’s inane opinion here: and the full story of this book. But I figure, hey, if you are here, you’ve flicked through a source or two about it, you got the gist….didn’t you?