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Addicted to the dopamine rush of e-mail?

Submitted by on June 11, 2010 – 1:47 pm5 Comments

He’s been making the media rounds, so I’m guessing that by now you’ve heard of Nicholas Carr and his new book, “The Shallows: What The Internet is Doing to Our Brains.”

Carr says that the nature of the Internet – hyperlinks, pages of search results, constant updates – is making it harder to pay attention to one topic for an extended period of time. In his words:  “Try reading a book while doing a crossword puzzle; that’s the intellectual environment of the Internet.”The Shallows book cover

This spring marked 10 years in the Internet industry for me, and I have to say I completely identified with all the symptoms Carr identified. In my own work habits, I have labeled my lessening ability to focus as “boredom,” as in, “Multi-tasking is easy for me because I get bored easily.”

Then I read this New York Times article explaining the biological implications of multitasking:

Scientists say juggling e-mail, phone calls and other incoming information can change how people think and behave. They say our ability to focus is being undermined by bursts of information.

These play to a primitive impulse to respond to immediate opportunities and threats. The stimulation provokes excitement — a dopamine squirt — that researchers say can be addictive. In its absence, people feel bored.

Tech Dirt critiques the “shallows”  argument as pining for the good old days which weren’t so good in the first place, and many reviewers have pointed out that new technology is always causes a “The end is near!” response.

To get an idea of how the Internet has affected your attention span, take the NYT’s tests of focus and to juggling tasks.

Or, try this. NPR posted an excerpt from his book. See if you can read the whole thing. It’s 1,885 words. Your attention span is safe for now if your response isn’t “tldr.”

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