Hollowing out the Habits of Attention (part 3)

This article was originally published in my column at the Colson Center. It is republished here with permission. For a complete directory of all my Colson Center articles, click here.

In the Mars Hill Audio Journal, Ken Myers once commented that “Indifference or indolence concerning reading is the occasion for many losses: a loss of capacity for sustained argument, for narrative engagement, for personal sympathy, and for the opportunity to lose oneself and then find oneself, in words.”

This observation is not new, as most thinking people recognize that the decline of reading has been concomitant with the loss of ability to produce and follow sustained argument and narrative engagement. However, what is less familiar is Myers’ contention that personal sympathy has also been one of the casualties in the decline of attentive reading.

Think about it. When we read books, especially quality fiction, we empathize with the characters in the book so that their experiences become our experiences. We enter into a world very different from our own but which, through imagination, begins to feel just as real as our world.

In my earlier article ‘Fiction and the Christian Faith’ I shared a study conducted at Washington University’s Dynamic Cognition Laboratory which found that attentive readers mentally simulate each new situation encountered in the narrative as if it were really happening. This type of imaginative engagement with other people—in this case, fictional people—enriches the readers’ experience of the world outside the book. This is because the patient attentiveness required to read a literary novel, a play or a long poem requires us to exercise some of the same mental muscles that are employed when we are attentive to real people.

In both fiction and healthy relationships, we need to be able to extend ourselves into the thoughts and feelings of others, no matter how different those thoughts and feelings may be from our own. We also need a capacity to accept complexity and tolerate ambiguity. This requires the same type of imaginative attentiveness that reading literary fiction can help us to cultivate. This should become clearer after a brief rabbit-trial about communication.

Communicating with People

For relationships to be healthy, we need to know how to suspend what we think and put ourselves in the mind of our friend, even when we think our friend may be wrong. This doesn’t mean we have to pretend to agree with what the other person is saying, but at a minimum we should be able to appreciate where they are coming from, to listen to their heart, to imaginatively relate to experiences that may be far removed from our own. Empathy enables two people who are vastly different to share experiences, to participate in each other’s struggles, sorrows and joys.

To be empathetic requires imagination, creativity and what psychologists call emotional intelligence. One example of how imagination helps with communication is when it comes to refraining from assuming that what the other person means is what I would mean if I said the same thing; instead we should be able to imagine things from the other person’s perspective. We also shouldn’t be too quick to assume we know what the other person is trying saying, but should be able to say “Is this what you mean?” or ‘This is how I’m hearing what you’re saying, is that right?’ Above all, we should learn to listen non-defensively in a way that helps the other person feel that it is safe to open up.

John Gottman described this type of listening when discussing communication among spouses in his book Why Marriages Succeed or Fall,

“Nondefensive listening doesn’t mean you need to agree with your partner. Your mission is to try to understand your partner’s feelings—to accept them as legitimate even if you don’t share them. If you can send the message, “Gee, I don’t see it that way, but I can understand why you might, given your perspective,” you will have gone a long way toward repairing the damage of previous negativity. The highest level of nondefensive listening entails empathizing with your partner’s emotions and viewpoint. That means putting yourself in your spouse’s shoes and truly comprehending his or her feelings from within yourself.”

In other words, healthy relationships require patient attentiveness. Healthy relationships require opening ourselves up to another, getting outside of ourselves and entering into the other person’s mind. How many divorces could have been prevented if the parties had only been willing to slow down and work at listening, really listening, to what their partner is trying to say? Such attentive listening is hard work. It is hard work because it requires attentiveness, just like the rewards of reading poetry, listening to classical music, or learning Latin require a similar type of patient attentiveness.

A Culture of Instant Gratification

The general loss of attentiveness in our culture affects the set of expectations we bring to relationships, eroding our ability to empathize in the way described in the last section. From fast food, to instant messages to immediate downloads, immediate gratification has become the norm. This makes patient and attentive listening a cognitively unnatural activity. Instead our brain enters into a condition that some researchers have described as “continuous partial attention.” The result is that our listening skills become significantly atrophied.

Media such as the i-touch, the i-phone, the android and even the internet itself, encourage distractedness, impatience and the kind of hurried and scattered focus that finds attentiveness to anything—including people we love—laborious and boring.

In my Touchstone article ‘Scripture in the Age of Google’, I described some of the specific ways that being online encourages us to be constantly distracted from one thing to the next:

“From animations, to hyperlinks, to pop-ups, to audible email notification, to live feeds, the internet seems designed to be always distracting our attention from one thing on to something else. When we go online, we enter what Cory Doctorow has appropriately termed an ‘ecosystem of interruption technologies.’ Our attention is scattered amid a panoply of stimuli, and our minds inundated with rapidly dispensed, and often disconnected, bits of information. In short, the calm, focused, and linear mind of the reader is being pushed aside by what Nicholas Carr, in his book The Shallows, has descriptively termed “a new kind of mind that wants and needs to take in and dole out information in short, disjointed, often overlapping bursts—the faster, the better.”

The truth of these observations was impressed upon me earlier in the year when a friend told me that he was increasingly finding that the only ideas people will take seriously are those which can be packaged into a text message. I don’t do text messaging (I’ve only sent 3 texts in my whole life), but I have found the same thing when writing emails. When I was a boy I would correspond with a number of different pen pals, and we would normally exchange letters that were eight or nine pages, sometimes even longer. Now I frequently have people telling me that my emails are too long for them to read because their eyes glazed over after the second page.

It isn’t that people are busier now than they were before. We seem to have more time to watch television and play on the computer and browse the internet than ever before. But what we don’t seem to have time for is the type of sustained attentiveness I am talking about. We can have numerous simultaneous conversations on the computer without any apparent difficulty, yet find it incredibly difficult to have just one conversation if it requires prolonged attentiveness and patience.

Building on McLuhan’s insight that “The medium is the message”, we might say that the medium of text messaging, Facebook, instant messaging services and even email, favors communication that is bitty, disconnected and transitory. When the ‘message’ of these media spill out of their immediate context into face to face dialogue, what we find is the hegemony of the unconscious expectation that communication should be quick and fragmentary.

The paradox, of course, is that our digital devices make us constantly available for communication. We are available but not attentive, present but strangely detached from one another.

Reading Books and Reading People

Developing the habits of mind necessary for reading good literary works reverses the tendency of our digital distractions and cultivates some of the same cognitive muscles we use when empathizing with others. Conversely, cognitive scientists have found that spending too much time on the computer stunts development of the frontal lobes, the part of the brain involved in empathizing and identifying the meaning of other people’s facial expressions.

Aristotle once commented that the mark of an educated man is the ability to entertain a thought even when you personally do not agree with that thought. In my experience I have found that the type of people who can do that—who can put my thoughts in their own words even if they do not personally agree with those thoughts—are often people who appreciate literary fiction and the finer arts. By contrast, those who limit their reading to popular fiction, or to biographies and didactic moralistic novels, tend to be more mentally rigid and to lack the type of cognitive elasticity required for understanding others.

Having noticed this, it came as no surprise when a study was published last month showing that reading literary fiction increases the type of emotional intelligence needed to empathize with others. Summarizing the study’s findings in the New York Times, Pam Belluck reported that the study “found that after reading literary fiction, as opposed to popular fiction or serious nonfiction, people performed better on tests measuring empathy, social perception and emotional intelligence — skills that come in especially handy when you are trying to read someone’s body language or gauge what they might be thinking. The researchers say the reason is that literary fiction often leaves more to the imagination, encouraging readers to make inferences about characters and be sensitive to emotional nuance and complexity.”

Interestingly, the same study found that reading shallow popular fiction didn’t yield the same results. This is probably because popular fiction allows the reader to be more passive. Popular fiction doesn’t require us to attend to the emotional nuance and complexity that we meet in literary fiction and—crucially—in real life. It is surely no coincidence that in the English language we speak about being able “to read people.”

Treating People as Objects

As our emotional intelligence is atrophied, we stop being able to read people. We may even treat people like objects rather than being attentive to them as persons. This can be seen in the normalization of various forms of semi-nudity that have become standard in our culture. A study by Princeton psychologists found that when men are shown pictures of a woman wearing a bikini, the region of the brain associated with tools and first-person action verbs lights up. “And in a ‘shocking’ finding,” the National Geographic reported, “some of the men studied showed no activity in the part of the brain that usually responds when a person ponders another’s intentions.” Lead researcher Susan Fiske commented, “The lack of activation in this social cognition area is really odd, because it hardly ever happens.”

The study had some methodological problems, but I suspect that more rigorous future studies will point in the same direction, namely that the mainstreaming of immodesty is correlate, and perhaps partially causative, to men being unable to view women as persons. Our passive assent to a culture that implicitly pressures women to undress in front of men is the natural correlate to our loss of empathy and compassion. For a man to be interested in a woman as a person is to be interested in knowing what she is thinking, in seeing reality from her perspective. To see a woman as a person is to try to empathize with how she is feeling, to be able to imaginatively identify with her experiences.

If the bikini seems to invite men to bypass a woman’s mind in approaching her body, the internet seems to invite us to bypass the body in approaching the mind. What is lost in both cases is engagement with the whole person.

Flesh and Blood Relationships

The lure of online relationships—or even real-world relationships in which the majority of communication occurs through texting—is that we can act as if we were disembodied and thereby suspend the vulnerability and fragility connected to our body. As Michael Heim warned back in his 1994 book The Metaphysics of Virtual Reality,

“Today’s computer communication cuts the physical face out of the communication process. Computers stick the windows of the soul behind monitors, headsets and datastuits… The living non-representable face is the primal source of reasonability, the direct, warm link between private bodies. Without directly meeting others physically, our ethics languishes. Face-to-face communication, the fleshly bond between people, supports a long-term warmth and loyalty, a sense of obligation for which the computer-mediated communities have not yet been tested.”

In its most extreme manifestation, the preference for disembodied relationships finds expression in men who do not even want to have sex since virtual girlfriends can satisfy all their needs. Even in less extreme forms, however, the ubiquity of virtual communication is making it hard to be attentive to real flesh-and-blood relationships.

The really scary thing is that the more time we spend in front of the computer, the more our brain structures change so that we become unable to relate to real flesh-and-blood people. As Gary Small and Gigi Vorgan explain in their book iBrain: Surviving the Technological Alteration of the Modern Mind,

“As the brain evolves and shifts its focus toward new technological skills, it drifts away from fundamental social skills, such as reading facial expressions during conversation or grasping the emotional context of a subtle gesture. A Standford University study found that for every hour we spend on our computers, traditional face-to-face interaction time with other people drops by nearly thirty minutes. With the weakening of the brain’s neural circuitry controlling human contact, our social interactions may become awkward, and we tend to misinterpret, and even miss subtle, nonverbal messages.”

In future articles in this ongoing series on attentiveness I hope to continue the discussion about specific ways that our digital devises are changing our view of community and ourselves.