Is the Internet turning us into a race of mental grasshoppers, hopping from leaf to leaf, unable to focus attention on one thing for more than a few seconds?
Unbroken blocks of text are not unknown on the web; but the most popular—and for many people, the most useful—sites present collections of graphics and text fragments, studded with links. Links help you to pick your own path through a complex mass of information, but they also distract you, tempt you into pointless digression, and break the coherence of your thought. Constantly nibbling at multiple information feeds, you can’t see the tree for the leaves, let alone see the wood for the trees.
Does it matter? Some say that the world today needs grasshoppers: modern life is fast-paced and multitasking, and versatility and quickness are valued above old-fashioned dedication to one task.
Others say that intellectual and social advance depends on deep thinkers who are not content to skip nimbly from leaf to leaf. Charles Darwin spent 22 years working on his theory of evolution before he published The Origin of Species in 1859. Isaac Newton, asked how he had made the discoveries that laid the foundation of the scientific revolution in the seventeenth century, famously replied “I keep the subject constantly before me and wait until the first dawnings open little by little into full light.”
Experimental evidence suggests that the ever shorter attention span encouraged by the internet and television can alter brain structure and damage our individual capacities for concentrated thought and the deeper insights it can bring. By instilling the habits of mental grasshoppers in ourselves and our children we may be diminishing the pool of potential Newtons and Darwins, and so reducing our ability to address the fundamental intellectual and social problems of today and tomorrow.
Footnote: To help you concentrate, this article was limited to 306 words and contains no hyperlinks.