Sophie Morris: Now I know why I find it impossible to concentrate

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The Independent Online

Eureka, I thought when I heard Baroness Susan Greenfield warning that overuse of the internet is damaging our brains. My recall abilities and concentration span have been nigh on indiscernible for several years, all down, so I thought, to general laziness, a fickle nature and wanton over-consumption of alcohol.

What bothers me about this isn't my inability to remember people's names, hold a conversation lasting more than three minutes or watch an episode of Celebrity Come Dine With Me without texting and Facebooking a few people, buying something on Amazon and skimming and re-skimming the first few paragraphs of a long magazine article at the same time.

No. What drives me mad is that I want to read those long articles, but my brain won't play ball. It's nothing to do with the long words or weighty subject matter. I just can't concentrate past 200 words. And what bothers me even more is that this goldfish-like attention deficit almost precludes me from reading books, both a personal luxury and a necessity in my line of work.

It was some time ago when I began to suspect that the problem was connected to the way I work with the internet, and wondered whether the endless surfing and flicking from window to window and page to page was responsible for dismantling and then re-wiring my brain. I was delighted to find some confirmation in an excellent article in The Atlantic published last summer, titled "Is Google Making Us Stupid?"

The author, Nicholas Carr, points to 50-year-old media theory which says that the media both supplies stuff to think about and actively shapes the way we think about it. Who isn't hardwired to find news at the front of a newspaper and sport at the back, and to read a headline first?

The sentiment is echoed by Maryanne Wolf, developmental psychologist and author of Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain. "We are not only what we read," she said. "We are how we read." I bought the book some time ago with the purpose of investigating my short-circuiting brain, but never got past the second page.

On a recent holiday I discovered all was not lost, and re-tuned my brain to the wonders of creeping printed prose and the suspense that only 300 pages of expertly crafted fiction can bring about.

Professor Greenfield is worried that children and teenagers will never experience the joy of reaching into a long book. Instead, their obsessive use of social networking sites will prevent their grey matter from ever attaining the capacity for the concentrated, deep thought and reflection that adults are credited with.

Where was I? Oh, yes: Greenfield's theory – lambasted by peers for being based on a hunch rather than hard evidence – is that the brains and therefore minds of the generations raised on the internet will end up different to our own. Didn't we used to call that progress?

In fact, by "different", Greenfield means "infantile", and she has compared this potential pandemic of arrested development to raising generations of small babies who need constant reassurance. This would certainly explain the fury on Tuesday when Gmail was down for a few hours.

If I feel lonely, I click my mouse repeatedly until an email pops up to reassure me there's somebody out there. Updating your Facebook status to report an illness, hangover or malaise of any sort usually gets a good response too. It's Aladdin's lamp for the 21st century, but far more effective.

I suspect Greenfield's hunch is on the money, and the research is only lacking because most people working in the field are too busy blogging and Tweeting to reflect upon the bigger picture, which is a bit grim.

Greenfield, and others, foresee a loss of identity itself. Why the apocalyptic panic when the internet has brought us unquantifiable riches of the sort I would never be without? Because when you immerse yourself in sustained reading or contemplation, you learn to think for yourself and have your own ideas. You, literally, make your own mind up. Are you still with me?

Is it really such an honour to be Woody's muse?

Great news for Slumdog Millionaire star Freida Pinto – she has been adopted as Woody Allen's latest muse and is to star in his next film.

I'm sure any young actress would be delighted to receive a call from the misanthropic maestro. Even if the resulting film is a flop, and you never can tell with Woody, it should be a great career boost. But I'm starting to wonder if the way the word "muse" is attached to beautiful women is a little flimsy, and if Mr Allen is taking advantage of the concept. The Oxford English Dictionary tells me that the noun "muse", when not used to describe a Greek or Roman goddess who encouraged the arts and sciences, means a "woman who is the inspiration for a creative artist".

After all, he did describe Scarlett Johansson, 50 years his junior, as "criminally sexy" when making Match Point, and went on to cast her in a raunchy lesbian scene with Penelope Cruz in his latest hit Vicky Cristina Barcelona. And we all know how he ran off with Mia Farrow's daughter Soon-Yi Previn, when she was just 22.

Is Allen's creativity inspired by young women like Pinto, or is it just as excuse to bag a few months working with the latest hot totty to turn a buck at the box office? I'd wager he is confusing the words "inspired" and "turned on".

* Riding high on my list of annoyances this week is the news that Primark are reporting yet another hike in sales as the rest of the high street is starved of shoppers. We all know Primark's manufacturing standards are decidedly questionable, but with the credit crunch comes an excuse to shop there. This excuse might hold up if our wardrobes were bare, but I don't think most of us are quite there yet.

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