Hermione Eyre: Generation bird-brain? It's just evolution

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The Independent Online

The shifty downward gaze, the darting thumb – it was unmistakable. The man was composing a text message. The problem was that we were in the theatre. On stage, Leontes was ranting and roaring; in the front row of the audience, Mr Busy Thumbs was scrolling through predictive. He didn't even try to hide it really. He just seemed to have put the sound down on the performers, to have flipped the channel on them, while he compulsively, absently busied himself with something else for a minute or two. Concentration is a dying art.

Inattention is catching. There in the theatre, sitting in the round, it multiplied: his distraction, then mine, because of him. Because of mine, who knows who else's? "I am a feather for each wind that blows," raged Leontes. Is our attention going that way? Becoming capricious? Carried here and there like a crisp packet in a draft, a Quaver in a wind tunnel, a Pringle in a gale... Where was I? See what I mean?

This week, ChildWise, a well-established market research agency, revealed findings (based on a survey of 1,147 children across the country) which indicated that young people are increasingly given to media "multi-tasking". TV is a background hum while they eat, surf the internet and even – in the case of 63 per cent of respondents – while they are falling asleep at night. Flicking between channels, so as to watch two shows simultaneously, is habitual, the report found, particularly among boys.

When the survey asked them to choose between programmes, they declined the question. "They cannot conceive that they should have to make a decision. They are puzzled that you should put them in a situation of having to make one or another choice," said the director of the research, Rosemary Duff, adding: "A lot of television has lost the 'pay it attention' feel it used to have." Not only is the ability to give something sustained attention waning – the very idea that this is desirable is falling away.

Is this entirely bad news? It seems unlikely. We are generally good at evolving. We don't tend to shed abilities unless we can do without them. We used to be able to move silently through forests at night. To digest grass (hence the appendix). We used to be able to operate spinning jennys, for heaven's sake. And do copperplate. Perhaps the ability to concentrate is a little more fundamental, but bear with me here. We have, in my view, developed butterfly brains because it is the only rational thing to do when faced with such a rich and tempting array of cultural stimuli. These brains is are a symptom of life being good. What we have lost in profundity and stamina we make up for in speed and discernment. It's the only way to get out of the cultural maze alive. We have to save our time and concentration for something that really deserves to be savoured. When we find it, will we still know how? Awkward question. Next.

As our concentration goes down, so artistic standards sharpen. Phew, that was so polemical, I'm not even sure I believe it, but that's what you have to do to keep people's attention, these days. Sock it to them, otherwise they'll have flipped over to the Business pages before you've finished your sentence. To capture our attention, culture becomes faster, brighter, quicker. Grosser, louder, crasser too.

As a model of a show constructed for bird-brains, look at The Family Guy. Minimal narrative continuum, maximum impact in each disjointed gag. It makes The Simpsons look quaintly demanding. It's genius, but leaves you feeling vaguely punch-drunk after, like you've eaten too many pick '*' mix.

We know, deep down, that culture isn't best ingested in bite-sizes like this. But we also know that to keep up socially, you need to know about a brain-melting variety of different things. Being social animals, we choose the latter. In doing so, we forgo the pleasure of deep concentration. We forget how, when you are immersed in a book, the signals actually take a different path through your brain, forsaking the effortful "dorsal route" for the more direct, fast-track "ventral route". This is "the secret heart of reading", according to Maryanne Wolf, the author of a recent study – the pleasurable fluency that dyslexics find impossible to achieve. And so, in time, may generation bird brain.

In the meantime, happy channel flipping. If we are all turning into "snapper[s]-up of unconsidered trifles", we might as well enjoy it.

h.eyre@independent.co.uk

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