Age of Distraction: The Dark Places of the Internet

Nigus Getahun, Columnist

At a pace never seen before, the internet has been able to infuse itself into almost every part of our lives. In doing so it has altered the way we obtain information, as well as the way we communicate with one another. So, while it can be argued that technology has made parts of our lives easier, the negative sides are often overlooked because the benefits that it has offered are tremendous.

Recently, I watched a Ted X video titled “How to get your brain to focus” by Chris Bailey, a Canadian writer and productivity consultant. The video is what inspired me to dig deeper into why we’re constantly getting distracted. Bailey says, the problem with our inability to focus isn’t because our brain is distracted but rather because our brains have been overstimulated by technology. At the tip of our fingertips we have access to hyper stimulation that has altered our mind. These hyper-stimuli come in the form of social media, movies, games, pornography, and other instant access media. Our overexposure to this stimulus has caused our minds to be altered in a way that forces us to constantly seek this stimulation.

Bailey says, “There’s even a mechanism in our mind called the ‘novelty bias,’ by which our mind rewards us with a hit of dopamine… and so we not only crave distraction but our mind rewards us for seeking out and finding distraction in the first place.” Essentially, when our mind has grown used to this state of hyper-stimulation and is later exposed to an activity with less stimulation, like studying and reading, then it gets bored and seeks ways of getting out of that lesser state; this is essentially what we call “distraction.”

In his book The Shallows, Nicholas Carr writes, “Psychological research long ago proved what most of us know from experience: frequent interruptions scatter our thoughts, weaken our memory, and make us tense and anxious.” So, if you’re a heavy internet user who is constantly exposed to easily accessible stimuli and novelty, you will have a hard time focusing on one task for a longer period of time. This is because your regular exposure to rapidly switching content has caused your brain to lose its capacity to focus for a prolonged period of time.

As Bailey states in his talk, distraction isn’t the enemy but rather a symptom of a much deeper problem. Luckily, there are ways for us to rewire our brains, and improve our ability to focus. We can do this through disciplines such as meditation, immersing ourselves in an activity like reading or studying for a period of time, as well cutting down the amount of time we’re on technology in a given day.