Multitasking vs ADD
July 17, 2004 4:50 PM   Subscribe

After having used the web obsessively for about eight years now, both for work and pleasure, I've noticed I've developed certain attention deficit disorder symptoms, i.e. I find myself leafing through books, reading only chapter and subchapter headers and then move on. Similarly, when I watch a movie on TV, I find myself switching channels all the time, watching other programs (even movies) simultaneously. The thing is, I don't really feel I'm missing out much, because I "get the general idea" anyway, I'm just getting three general ideas instead of fully absorbing one. Is this bad? Anyone else doing this? Comments and insights welcome.
posted by dagny to Health & Fitness (32 answers total)
That IS me. I also do that with newspaper articles. I hope this isn't too bad.
posted by ruwan at 4:57 PM on July 17, 2004

This is happening to me too.

I'm not too bothered, except when it comes to fiction. I have to consciously slow down to really get much pleasure from novels, which I definitely didn't have to do as a teenager.

I do feel that this is something I was always inclined to do anyway, and the information overload from the web is really the cause of my "grazing" behaviour, it's simply supplied the extra straws for that camel's back.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 5:14 PM on July 17, 2004

I've been like that for about 2 years now, I guess. Thing is, I'm an English major, so I'm supposed to LOVE poring over reading assignments for hours a night. Another thing is, (my name is bitpart and) I'm an internet junkie. I suspect that that is the reason I was more inclined to take poetry classes last year.

So, this summer I've taken it upon myself to read longer works of fiction as often as possible. It's all about self-control. I just finished reading a book, but I only read through about half of the three or four antecedent books. So with the most recent book I had to force myself to not put it down and start on another, taking it little by little, a couple of pages per night and when I had some free time and an iNet connection wasn't readily available. I would suggest reading something light or something you've been meaning to read for a while. (DO NOT START WITH FAULKNER. I learned that the hard way. I blame this post for my naive undertaking.)

I won't say it's "bad" necessarily, but when Western Civilization finally swirls down the shitter, I'll be sure to lay the blame, at least partially, on the fact that people think that if something can't be said in 5 minutes, then it's not worth wasting time on. Like I said: it's all about self-control. Do you want to read a book straight through from cover to cover? Yes? Then f-ing do it.* No? Then be content skimming through weblogs 'cause some of them ain't bad, but be sure to read at least some informative ones.

This response was more about books than movies, but I can do without people watching movies all the way through. It's people not reading thoroughly that gets to me.

*: when I say "f-ing do it," I mean "don't rush, and be sure that you're in the frame of mind to enjoy it." You know, like f-ing. :/
posted by bitpart at 5:19 PM on July 17, 2004

Also, check out this question that was posted yesterday.
posted by bitpart at 5:21 PM on July 17, 2004

Geez. Do I know exactly what you mean! I've noticed the same thing. I can hardly believe how much I was able to actually read back in college. I could never do it now.

The thing is, I don't really feel I'm missing out much, because I "get the general idea" anyway, I'm just getting three general ideas instead of fully absorbing one. Is this bad?

Well, it's good and bad. It's a good thing in that you get damn quick at sifting through a wide, shallow pool of information for the most salient facts. But it's bad to have a short attention span, and I confess I've gotten quite used to letting the internet digest my information for me. I want the bottom line, and 80% of the time someone is there to tell me what it is (one reason we all love MeFi). The problem with that is that you're letting someone else do your thinking for you, and you lose the ability to do hardcore research and critical thought.
posted by scarabic at 5:30 PM on July 17, 2004

I do think this is bad, mostly because "the general idea" can often turn out to be wrong. By skimming, you're relying on a sort of mass consensus while missing some of the subtle implications.

Me, I've always tended to mistrust everything I read or hear. I am always certain that vital information has been lost because the summaries I'm depending on have decided to throw out some incongruos detail But, the best things in life I'm discovering, stem from that incongruous detail.

Put another way, skimming is like planning a visit to a city using only a popular tourist guide. Yeah, you'll still see a lot of cool stuff and, in some cases. may even get a local to show you around. But, nothing compares to actually settling down and living there for at least a short while.
posted by vacapinta at 6:32 PM on July 17, 2004

I have been an intensive network/Internet user for going on two decades. It started with the exclusively-chatter Citadel-86 network (which incidently had discussion threads very much like MetaFilter, and I bet Matt would have an instant success on his hands were he to fire up a copy of Citadel-UX) in 1985 or 86; Usenet in 1988ish; and "The Web" back at its very start.

I do not read newspapers very well, but then there really isn't much worth reading in them anyways. Most newspaper writing is bloody shoddy, with the headlines often being just as usefully informative as the body text. So no loss there.

I used to read novels by the score. I still usually have something from the library on the go. I spent over a year reading exclusively non-fiction works, having decided to browse the library from Dewey 001 through 999, just to see what it was like. I went on a "classic greats" kick and read almost everything that would be considered a good classic novel. I went on a sci-fi/fantasy kick, did a bunch of lightweight stuff there. Etcetera.

But I do find myself spending more and more time seeking network communities and newsfilters. There's a lot going on out there.

I don't watch television at all any more. Maybe you skim-only folk are addicted to television?
posted by five fresh fish at 6:43 PM on July 17, 2004

skimming is like planning a visit to a city using only a popular tourist guide.

I know what you mean, but it's not necessarily quite like that. You don't have to visit the parts that the tourist guides point to. You can just as well skim through the slums, the office towers, the sewers, the factory floors, the kitchen parties, or just about anywere. I think a lot of us who bounce randomly through the datasphere, gleaning general ideas from everywhere, look specifically for the incongruous details that might contrast with consensus reality. Well, I think I do, anyway.

When I feel I've gone too far, I like to go for a bike ride, or a hike in the woods. Make sure you spend a few relaxed hours every day somewhere away from the temptations of high-speed media.

Maybe you skim-only folk are addicted to television?

Not me. I skim quickly through written words; I can go through a newspaper in five minutes or less, and get the general idea of everything in it. But the few things on television that I can stand to watch are slow-paced. The Tour de France for instance will keep my attention. Commercials skipped, naturally. Television generally isn't information-dense enough for my high standards of concentrated data-feeding. It was for a while, when I first got a decent tv hookup, but I got bored with it after a month or two.
posted by sfenders at 7:08 PM on July 17, 2004

I've recently finished my undergrad in English, and I've definitely noticed the "grazing" syndrome while wading through my reading list as well. But for me it's hugely tied to my personal interest in the subject matter--I grazed and nibbled at Faulkner but devoured huge chunks of Beckett* in one sitting without any lapses in concentration. I can't even sit through web-length articles linked off of MeFi half of the time, but still re-read Lord of the Rings recently in long sittings over the course of two days. And so on.

I do think it's a bad thing for one to have problems with attention spans, for reasons similar to the ones vacapinta have cited. My way of coping with my own wandering attention is to simply acknowledge when I'm not terribly interested in what I'm doing and switch to something that truly interests me. Or, if it's something I must read regardless of my interest, schedule a ton of time from it and take lots of breaks. Trying to force myself to read while uninterested either drops retention to zero while numbly flipping pages or cures any vestiges of insomnia I might have been harboring (with no saving throws). Thus, it was always important for me to recognize when my mind is wandering.

I don't know if short attention spans are "caused" by the web or not, but I agree with the others who have cited natural character predispositions as well. Thus, I don't really believe in any "attention-building" exercises.

Oh, and I've discovered (the hard way) that "general ideas" from skimming are wrong more often than not. Often, nuance is the crux of meaning--but it depends a whole lot on what's in front of you as well.

*This affinity for Beckett is undoubtedly a sign of some advanced mental illness on my part.
posted by DaShiv at 7:10 PM on July 17, 2004

I don't watch any television either, FFF. That went out to an even more drastic degree than actually finishing the books I start.
posted by scarabic at 7:18 PM on July 17, 2004

I find I do this as well. One thing that's helped me--seriously--is taking public transportation. If I only bring one book with me to work, then that's the only thing I have to do, so it gets read. I wouldn't recommend everyone do this, but going someplace where you have no choice but to concentrate on one thing--take the book to the park or to a restaurant (me and my boyfriend used to go out to eat and we'd each bring a book to read; people thought we were SO WEIRD).

FFF, there are still Citadel bbs's around; check out this website. Most of them are, iirc, fairly low-traffic, though. (I, too, got my start on Citadels, but much later in 1993. The only bbs I ever go to these days is Quartz, and then only so sporadically as to be essentially never.)
posted by eilatan at 7:35 PM on July 17, 2004

I thought I had developed early adult ADD. Turns out it was the internet.
posted by will at 7:58 PM on July 17, 2004

PS - I skimmed your answers, out of instinct. I am beyond help.
posted by will at 7:59 PM on July 17, 2004

I've noticed the same thing in myself. I recently went a few weeks with no internet access, though, and damn if I didn't get a whole hell of a lot of reading in (like, two (admittedly short) novels in three days; longer for nonfiction but still a nice clip). Now that I've got it back, though, my ability to focus on reading is lessening again.

Too bad my computer doesn't only work an hour a day.
posted by kenko at 8:20 PM on July 17, 2004

Actually, on further thought, I think that my giving up TV might have been part and parcel of my diminishing attention span. Other people are content to flip channels for a while, looking for something they enjoy. I get impatient fast. I cannot sit through 3 minutes of commercials, either. And television just isn't interactive enough. What's the point if I can't comment, or email the link to a friend, or FPP it? I just lose interest.
posted by scarabic at 8:45 PM on July 17, 2004

Maybe we're all just getting older.
posted by tss at 9:13 PM on July 17, 2004

How many people read the first few comments, then went straight to the comment box?

I have found myself doing this as well, which is OK most of the time, but quite annoying when I am trying to read a novel and I find myself skipping ahead all the time.
posted by dg at 9:38 PM on July 17, 2004

I think this is just a habit, and one that can be broken. I find when I go through phases where almost all the reading I do is 'net or news related, I have to make an effort to really READ when I settle down to read a book. I find I need to make an effort to read on a regular basis for a little while before I'm back in practice, and then my old in-depth reading ability comes back again.
posted by biscotti at 10:06 PM on July 17, 2004

An ancillary question: What is the rest of your mind doing while you're skimming? Are you entirely focused on said activity or are you thinking as well?

I find that as I have one track of my mind reading, etc., there is another track doing something else. And I don't mean the thing where you get to the bottom of the page and find you haven't retained anything, but retaining and thinking at the same time.
posted by dame at 10:10 PM on July 17, 2004

tss: I'm 22. If this is me "getting older", I expect all higher-order mental functions will have ceased by 35.
posted by kenko at 10:15 PM on July 17, 2004

I don't have this problem in terms of books, because for me, "reading" and whatever it is I do on the internet are completely different activities. I don't think of them as just two different means of absorbing information; if reading is a long luxurious bath, internet is like rinsing my hands.

I'm definitely a bonafide internet junkie, but while I'm on the net just about every single day, I also read (books) every day. Internet is more about utility, society, and light entertainment, while reading is my solitary, deeply satisfying pleasure. It may be that my ability to concentrate on a book is not diminished because I've read all my life, and it was a totally ingrained habit long before the internet. However, I will say that I have always used internet-style skimming for newspapers and magazines, so it may be a matter of medium.
posted by taz at 11:26 PM on July 17, 2004

I have noticed this as well. I don't skim often, but it's happening more frequently.

And I now watch most movies on my PC, in a small window to the side of my #mefi window. I don't miss anything in the movie, and I get a lot of chatting done. win/win
posted by beth at 12:07 AM on July 18, 2004

Same effect here. In fact, I'm selling off half of my books tomorrow - mostly stuff I've had to admit I'll never read or reread. And we're talking here about someone who owns, has owned, several thousand books.

I think we've got hold of something here. Question is, what do we do with it? Book club?
posted by zadcat at 12:17 AM on July 18, 2004

Oh yes - Rands has already named this phenomenon - Nerd Attention Deficit Disorder.
posted by zadcat at 12:19 AM on July 18, 2004

I know exactly what you mean too. I am having hard time focusing on schoolwork because of all the reading, even though I had no problem reading before I was exposed to the internet. How interesting! Seriously, you asked a very relevant question.
posted by Keyser Soze at 3:58 AM on July 18, 2004

I've been diagnosed with ADD/ADHD by psychiatrists, and I do not have the problems described in the original post. So you might want to reconsider the terms you're using.
posted by bingo at 6:50 AM on July 18, 2004

I call this the NPR syndrome. I would notice this when I'd go to parties and would talk to people and they all had these really interesting stories to tell about quirky cool stuff. When I'd inquire further it turned out that they only had about 2-4 minutes of knowledge on the subject and that they all knew the same facts because they all listened to the same radio station. If you only had 90 seconds to talk to them, you might think they were smart, as it was, I wanted to know more and wound up thinking they were often sort of shallow.

That said, it's all about context. I scan an incredible amount of stuff on topics of interest to me specifically so that I can figure out which ideas I want to learn more about [A favorite task when I'm reading a thick book is to write down a list of words to Google when I'm done reading, or when I need a break, helps me go in depth on the topic and still get to screw off on the Internet some. I tend to read books by laying down on the couch and just reading for 3-4 hours straight, so I may be the opposite of what you describe] This helps me "keep current" at work and I know how to learn more if I want to. I know a little about a lot, professionally. This seems okay to me in my job as a librarian, maybe not so much if I were a brain surgeon, I dunnow.

On the other hand, when I'm talking to good friends or my boyfriend about something important, I'm pretty cheesed off if they starts thumbing through a magazine. Partly because I know from personal experience it means they're not totally listening and partly because I feel like it sends up a "you're boring" message and I don't want to have to always strive to be the most interesting thing in the room just to get someone's full attention. That sense of wanting the thing in front of you to be interesting enough to get your full attention -- as opposed to giving your full attention to something because it deserves attention -- I find problematic. There are complex ideas that are useful or important to know about -- politics comes to mind, interpersonal relationships, and child-rearing -- where this approach can fall flat. Pandering to this mentality seems to up the sex and violence level of the media to make it all attention grabbing. I think that is possibly bad. The talk-on-cell-phone-and-drive-the-car thing seems bad to me, though I know many people who swear it isn't.

On a personal level, I don't think it's bad as long as you're not pretending you really know about any of the subjects you're sort of lightly involving yourself with. If you watch two movies at once, the argument can be made that you didn't truly watch either one of them. On the other hand, if you go to a party filled with people with NPR sydrome, you will knock them on their asses with the sheer amount of knowledge you have. It's all relative.
posted by jessamyn at 8:02 AM on July 18, 2004 [1 favorite]

First of all, I can't imagine how one's reading (or viewing) style could be "right" or "wrong," in a moral/ethical sense. Ethics are chiefly about your effect on others, and I don't see how any reading style could hurt someone else (with the exception of, if you're a parent, your reading style might set a bad example for your child.) You should do what you enjoy. If you enjoy skimming, skim.

I can think of two ways your style might cause you harm: first, it might hinder your work, if you have to read for work. Maybe your work requires that you understand nuances.

But my second problem -- and the one that I really want to discuss -- comes with how your style relates to narratives. You talk about watching movies only until you "get the idea." Though many academics would disagree with me, I think the "idea" is the least important part of most stories.

I think the whole point of stories is to tickle your senses, so my "most important" and "least important," I mean ways you can interact with stories that will tickle your senses the most -- or the least.

Stories can make you feel. They can make you laugh and cry and send chills down your spine. They can make you yearn to know what-happens-next. They can disgust you. They can astonish you.

None of these things can happen to you if you just dip into the story. You have to really read it through. If you don't, I still don't think you're "wrong" or "bad." But I do think you're missing out on one of the pleasures of being human.
posted by grumblebee at 8:18 AM on July 18, 2004

jessamyn, I love the term "NPR syndrome" - it is definitely a widespread thing in NYC. People (I should say "we" as I'm sure I've done it myself) often think they know something just from a brief intro to it, and people often judge intelligence based on someone's knowledge of trivia - the word trivia has literally lost its meaning.

When I'm online I usually have the radio on in the background, unless I'm listening to music, and am sort of flipping between a few different applications as well (some writing project in Word, some image in photoshop, or whatever). But when I actually read, I have to switch gears - it takes conscious effort on my part, and it's easiest if the computer is just off (although if I focus, I don't need to do that; it just helps to ready my mind to change into a different mode). I too have found the subway a great "forced reading period" and I've gotten quite a lot of reading done because of a currently long commute. It's natural on the subway, whereas it takes mental decision and concentration to do the same at home when I have a tv, a computer, a radio, a fridge :), and various other possible distractions and stimulations.
posted by mdn at 8:52 AM on July 18, 2004

Interesting thread. I used to have a tendency to skim, until I started reading James Joyce a few years ago which I felt increased my focus. The writing in Ulyssesis so dense it encourages steady progress contemplating each sentence. Reading books line by line was much easier after.

And I'd agree that skimming isn't necessarily bad, in university it's essential. Actually it seems to me a lot of popular writing, Stephen King especially, has this airy quality that can be skimmed through without losing the plot. Likewise a lot of television is designed to be skimmed, to pick up channel surfers for a few minutes.

I've heard various theories on skimming and the internet, such as the shifting light and colour of computer screens engage different, more visual, parts of the brain compared to text on paper, and this produces a tendency to skim.
posted by bobo123 at 10:03 AM on July 18, 2004

Is it bad that I came in here to read the thread and . . . well, you know. Suffice it to say I cannot read anything on the net that's not bullet points (just about). I have no problem with good books, but when a co-worker sends me a link to check, I usually wind up having a conversation about something I haven't read. [bonus points for getting this far]
posted by yerfatma at 10:21 AM on July 18, 2004

I've been diagnosed with ADD/ADHD by psychiatrists, and I do not have the problems described in the original post. So you might want to reconsider the terms you're using.

I have also been diagnosed with ADD, and I have exactly those symptoms mentioned above. Taking Adderall helps me concentrate, but I can still spend hours mindlessly skimming things on the Internet. So I think that the Internet can both serve as a timewaster when you're already distracted, and a distraction in its own right.
posted by transona5 at 1:51 PM on July 18, 2004

« Older How Can I Improve My Typing Skills?   |   Thorough Powerbook checkup suggestions? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.