Book Reviews – Stolen Focus, The Shallows, Proust and the Squid

January 31, 2023

Stolen Focus, Why You Can’t Pay Attention – and How to Think Deeply Again by Johann Hari 

The Shallows, How The Internet Is Changing The Way We Think, Read, And Remember by Nicholas Carr

Proust and the Squid, the Story and Science of the Reading Brain, by Maryanne Wolf

I recently did a bit of a deep dive into the effects that the internet, social media, and devices have on our ability to concentrate, focus, and think deeply.  

The initial jumping off point was a broader look at some of the challenges we all face while living in the attention economy where we are the product and the world’s largest corporations are competing for our attention. This led to a book that looks at how the brain is actually affected and even develops in response to the constant stimulation by carefully curated content and tactically served praise and group acceptance, along with ever present threat and fear of missing out (FOMO).  This in turn led to into an even deeper and narrower rabbit hole that focused solely on language technology and reading, how homo sapiens developed both the external technology and the internal capabilities that allows allow us to create, consume, and share information with an almost unlimited audience across generations and locations, and the effects that those technologies and activities have had on the development of the human brain and how we think.

Before I get started on reviewing each of the three books that made up my shallow deep dive, I’d like to explain how I became interested in this subject.  

I have found myself, for more than a few years, struggling with my ability to stay focused on a specific task or topic. Also, as the father of three children, all of whom had been voracious readers at one or more points in their lives, I’ve watched as they have lost their interest in reading, or at least their ability focus for more than a few minutes on reading a book, an article, or anything of substance. And, to be quite honest, I’ve noticed something disturbingly similar in myself. 

Stolen Focus, Why You Can’t Pay Attention – and How to Think Deeply Again by Johann Hari 

Thankfully, I was jolted awake by Joahann Hari’s Stolen Focus.  Like many of us, the New York Times best-selling author, Hari, noticed a significant degradation in his ability to focus.  He became concerned about this and set out to understand why it was happening and what, if anything, he (and hopefully the rest of us) could do about it.

What then takes place is a sort of personal experiment that starts with Hari gaining awareness of the scope of the problem and potential causes. He does an excellent job providing relevant and sobering facts related to how much and how often we use, and even touch our devices such as phones, iPads, and computers (over 2,600 time per day for Americans), in a non-academic manner that makes the reading both informational, memorable and and easy to consume.  If it weren’t for the disturbing nature of the subject, I’d even say Hari’s writing was enjoyable.

Hari points out the shallowness and the effects on our psyche of interactions on social media vs. traditional in-person communications such as face-to-face meetings or participating in a good old fashioned phone call.  He relates to a random group of people singing the sound track of Evita at a pub and says, “I was struck again by a big difference – between standing in a group of strangers singing with them and interacting with groups of strangers through screens.  The first dissolves your sense of ego, the second jabs and pokes at it.” 

Hari continues by arguing that many of the best things in our lives, such as human relationships, benefit from depth of effort, communication, and understanding. But, depth takes time and focus, and unfortunately we are experiencing a “collective exhaustion” of our ability to focus our attention.  He also shines the spotlight on technologies that can “track and manipulate you,” and almost comes to the conclusion that resistance is futile, especially if your sole line of defense is will power.

After arguing his case past the point of no return, Johann decides to embark on a digital detox in Provincetown, a small town on the tip top of Cape Cod.  He goes cold turkey from his phone, social media, and the internet.  This is not an experiment that many of us feel that we have the luxury to conduct on our ourselves. But thankfully, we can live vicariously through Johann. We get to follow him on his journey and extrapolate what the results might be on our own lives based upon the challenges, breakthroughs, and benefits that he experiences. 

At the conclusion of his self-imposed exile Hari reflects on his experience and makes some suggestions related to getting companies that produce the devices and social media platforms to create a win-win situation by developing features that help users to moderate their usage and consumption.  On this point, I’m less optimistic.

The Shallows, How The Internet Is Changing The Way We Think, Read, And Remember by Nicholas Carr

While Stolen Focus generally describes the problem of attention deficits from the 30,000’ vantage point, occasionally dipping down into the science, The Shallows, How The Internet Is Changing The Way We Think, Read, And Remember, ironically enough, goes in the exact opposite direction of its title and immediately gets deeply into the subject.

Like Hari, Carr starts his book by describing the problem as he’s observed it in himself. He does this effectively throughout chapter one. But to my mind, he perfectly describes the problem in a single paragraph that eerily almost exactly describes what I’ve personally been experiencing, feeling and thinking for some time now.

“Over the last few years I’ve had an uncomfortable sense that someone, or something, has been tinkering with brain, remapping the neural circuitry, reprogramming the memory.  My mind isn’t going – so far as I can tell – but it’s changing. I’m not thinking the way I used to think. I feel it most strongly when I’m reading. I used to find it easy to immerse myself in a book or lengthy article. My mind would get caught up in the twists of the narrative or the turns of the argument, and I’d spend hours strolling through long stretches of prose. That’s rarely the case anymore. Now my concentration starts to drift away after a page or two. I get fidgety, lose the thread, begin looking for something else to do. I feel like I’m always dragging my wayward brain back to the text. The deep reading that used to come naturally has become a struggle.”

A page later, he whittles the problem down into in a single descriptive sentence. “Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words, now I zip along the surface like a guy on a jetski.”

From that point Carr gets deep into the science of how the intellectual tools that we use, whether it be maps, timepieces, alphabets, books, or phones, and social media, all affect how we view the world and also how our brains develop in response to using these tools. He goes deep into neural plasticity and the science that proves no matter how young or old we are, our brains do change and adapt to wherever they are applied, whether that be a physical or purely mental activity.

The mental activity that Carr spends the most time discussing is reading. He presents the historical events that had to happen in order for humans to have something to read, and then how the art and science of writing evolved from simply transcribing records of transaction into something that could be used to record stories as they were spoken.

On that front, one of the more interesting phenomena that is discussed is that whenever we use a tool, regardless of whether it’s a physical or intellectual aid, the corresponding physical or mental skill or ability is weakened. For example, if you use a machine to replace manual labor, the muscles that used to be used for that task are no longer worked and thus, atrophy. Likewise, if you use a spellchecker, a calculator, or a web-based map, you spelling accuracy, calculation speed, and route finding ability with the devices will probably all be significantly enhanced. However, once you’ve become accustomed to using those devices your abilities to calculate, spell, and navigate will significantly atrophy.

Once the case has been made that, hey our brains are malleable and do develop capacities depending on where we focus our attention and activity, and how the use of certain tools can both help us and stunt our development, Carr then presents information related to how much of our time, focus, and mental energy is being usurped by devices and apps in the attention economy.

From there, it is any easy argument to make and prove, that as much we may be enjoying our devices and apps, we are enjoying them at the expense of other activities such as a reading and to the detriment of important abilities such as focus and concentration.

Like Stolen Focus, The Shallows is highly readable, easily digestible, and hauntingly memorable. 

Proust and the Squid, the Story and Science of the Reading Brain, by Maryanne Wolf

The last stop on this leg of my journey was a book that was recommended by Nicholas Carr and written by Maryanne Wolfe called Proust and the Squid; The Story and Science of the Reading Brain

Wolf is a professor of child development at Tufts University and is also the director of the Center for Reading, and Language Research at Tufts. Where Carr’s book focused on how our brain adapts to where and how we apply it, Wolf drills down and focuses on how homo sapiens developed the seemingly unlikely yet amazing important ability to read, and how reading, in turn, developed not only the circuitry of our brain, but our individual and collective imaginations as well as our ability to empathize.

She starts by providing an explanation of how the human brain learned to read. Now this might sound like a “no-brainer” to most people, but if you really look at everything that’s needed and involved with reading, it starts to appear like it was some sort of miracle that it happened at all, let alone in several different places around the world, roughly about the same time. 

For starters you need something to read, IE an alphabet or set of symbols. And for phonetic alphabets you’d need to realize that sentences are groups of words, which seems pretty basic. But you’d also need to recognize that words can be broken down into to distinct sounds, which is a bigger stretch. And then, finally, you’d need to figure out how to organize the symbols in sensible manner so that they represented the sounds that make up the words, and the words that make up the sentence, all of this before there were words for terms such as sentences, words, syllables, and sounds of words.

Even with the external systems in place, and a general understanding of what the characters or symbols of the alphabet represent, the brain has to do all sorts of amazing things for us to be able to recognize the characters we are seeing, attribute a sound or meaning to them in the context that they appear in, and then remember those things long enough in our short-term or working memory to then cross reference our long-term memory, and eventually store what we have read and our related thoughts and feelings  to our long-term memory.  And even this is a gross oversimplification that massively fails to do the whole process justice.

Wolf also spends some time explaining why and how young children learn or don’t learn to read, and how we can facilitate the development of reading skills.  

The author also covers a topic that was a lot more complicated than I had ever suspected, dyslexia.  It turns out there are many types of dyslexia and the exact causes are not fully understood. But, Wolf explains this in detail and introduces some of the most credible theories as to the causes, the types, and even some often overlooked benefits of having, or at least abilities that are developed in those who have, dyslexia.

At the very end, Professor Wolf, while clearly herself an advocate for literacy and all the benefits it bestows upon the reader and society, warns that today deep reading, and all that benefits it confers upon those who partake of it, is in danger of being displaced by simply scanning content from screens without taking the time to reflect on its meaning.  

And while she does believe that there is room for more than one process of consuming and absorbing content or method of sharing information, she is definitely concerned about what literacy will look like in the future. In the closing chapter of her book, she asks, “Will unguided information lead to an illusion of knowledge, and thus curtail the more difficult,  time-consuming, critical thought processes that lead to knowledge itself? Will the split-second immediacy of information gained from a search engine and the sheer volume of what is available derail the slower, more deliberative processes that deepen our understanding of complex concepts, of another’s inner thought processes, and of our own consciousness?”

The answer to her question can be found, at least in part, by going back to where my deep dive started, in The Shallows by Nicholas Carr and, nearer to the surface, in Hari’s Stolen Focus.  The real question is, do we care enough to do something about it?

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Sensei John Solheim has been practicing Karate since 1992. The focus of his teaching and instruction since 2000 has been on Karate as it applies