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Laura Miller reviews Winifred Gallagher’s latest book on—Wait, what was it on again? Oh, yeah.—our culture’s inability to concentrate and what we can do about it:

You don’t have to agree that “we” are getting stupider, or that today’s youth are going to hell in a handbasket (by gum!) to mourn the withering away of the ability to think about one thing for a prolonged period of time. Carr (whose argument was grievously mislabeled by the Atlantic’s headline writers as a salvo against the ubiquitous search engine) reported feeling the change “most strongly” while he was reading. “Immersing myself in a book or a lengthy article used to be easy,” he wrote. “Now my concentration often starts to drift after two or three pages. I get fidgety, lose the thread, begin looking for something else to do. I feel as if I’m always dragging my wayward brain back to the text.” For my own part, I now find it challenging to sit still on my sofa through the length of a feature film. The urge to, for example, jump up and check the IMDB filmography of a supporting actor is well-nigh irresistible, and once I’m at the computer, why not check e-mail? Most of the time, I’ll wind up pausing the DVD player before the end of the movie and telling myself I’ll watch the rest tomorrow . . . . .

Winifred Gallagher’s new book, Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life argues that it’s high time we take more deliberate control of this stuff. “The skillful management of attention,” she writes, “is the sine qua non of the good life and the key to improving virtually every aspect of your experience, from mood to productivity to relationships.” Because we can only attend to a tiny portion of the sensory cacophony around us, the elements we choose to focus on—the very stuff of our reality—is a creation, adeptly edited, providing us with a workable but highly selective version of the world and our own existence. Your very self, “stored in your memory,” is the product of what you pay attention to, since you can’t remember what you never noticed to begin with . . . . .

As long as we remain only dimly aware of the dueling attention systems within us, the reactive will continue to win out over the reflective. We’ll focus on discussion-board trolls, dancing refinancing ads, Hollywood gossip and tweets rather than on that enlightening but lengthy article about the economy or the novel or film that has the potential to ravish our souls. Tracking the shiny is so much easier than digging for gold! Over time, our brains will adapt themselves to these activities and find it more and more difficult to switch gears. Gallagher’s exhortations to scrutinize and redirect our attention could not be more timely, but actually accomplishing such a feat increasingly feels beyond our control. I can’t speak personally to the effectiveness of meditation, Gallagher’s recommended remedy for chronic distraction, but the effectiveness of meditative practices (religious or secular) in reshaping the brain have also been abundantly demonstrated.

Knee-jerk Internet boosters like to argue that the old ways of thinking are both obsolete and less wondrous than fuddy-duddies make them out to be. The next generation of citizens, they insist, will happily inhabit a culture composed of millions of small, spinning, sparkly bits and, what’s more, they will thrive in it. Tell that to the kids who spent all weekend holed up with the last Harry Potter book. As exhausting as it can be to fight off the siren call of the reactive attention system, some part of us will always yearn to be immersed, captivated and entranced by just one thing, to the point that the world and all its dancing diversions grows dim, fades and falls away.

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