Friday, May 11, 2018

Neuroscience, Dopamine, and Why We Struggle to Read

I'm a proud book worm. Each year I challenge myself to read a certain number of books, and do so publicly, thanks to Goodreads. Last year, I read 53 books. This year, I challenged myself to read 60. I was doing really well. Then April and May happened, and with it Blogging A to Z, multiple events and performances, work insanity, and some major life stuff. I found it harder to make time for and concentrate on reading.

I got off track, and was disheartened when I logged into book reads and saw that I was behind schedule.

I know I should be proud that I've read 19 books already this year, but that "2 books behind schedule" keeps drawing my attention away from the thing I should be proud of.

And I'm not alone. A lot of people are having difficulty concentrating on and enjoying their time with books. We get distracted by a variety of things, including phone and email. So it's good timing that someone shared with me this article by Hugh McGuire, who built his life on books and reading, and discusses his own difficulty with getting through his ever-growing reading list:
This sickness is not limited to when I am trying to read, or once-in-a-lifetime events with my daughter.

At work, my concentration is constantly broken: finishing writing an article (this one, actually), answering that client’s request, reviewing and commenting on the new designs, cleaning up the copy on the About page. Contacting so and so. Taxes.

It turns out that digital devices and software are finely tuned to train us to pay attention to them, no matter what else we should be doing. The mechanism, borne out by recent neuroscience studies, is something like this:
  • New information creates a rush of dopamine to the brain, a neurotransmitter that makes you feel good.
  • The promise of new information compels your brain to seek out that dopamine rush.
  • With fMRIs, you can see the brain’s pleasure centres light up with activity when new emails arrive.
So, every new email you get gives you a little flood of dopamine. Every little flood of dopamine reinforces your brain’s memory that checking email gives a flood of dopamine. And our brains are programmed to seek out things that will give us little floods of dopamine. Further, these patterns of behaviour start creating neural pathways, so that they become unconscious habits: Work on something important, brain itch, check email, dopamine, refresh, dopamine, check Twitter, dopamine, back to work. Over and over, and each time the habit becomes more ingrained in the actual structures of our brains.

There is a famous study of rats, wired up with electrodes on their brains. When the rats press a lever, a little charge gets released in part of their brain that stimulates dopamine release. A pleasure lever.

Given a choice between food and dopamine, they’ll take the dopamine, often up to the point of exhaustion and starvation. They’ll take the dopamine over sex. Some studies see the rats pressing the dopamine lever 700 times in an hour.

We do the same things with our email. Refresh. Refresh.
And it's true - sometimes when I've made time to read, I find myself distracted by the digital world: Are there new posts on the blogs I follow? What's going on on Facebook? Hey, Postmodern Jukebox has a new video!

After I put my phone or computer down and pick up the book again, I sometimes have to reread a bit to remind myself where I was or because I wasn't really paying attention the first time I read a paragraph, distracted by what else might be going on in the world.

What can we do to change this? Hugh McGuire decided to set some rules for himself, such as keeping himself from checking Twitter and Facebook during certain times. What about you, readers? Any rules you make for yourself to keep your mind on the task at hand?

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