Internet prevents us from concentrating

“I can’t read anymore,” Patrick once said to one of his colleagues. For several months, he had been spending more and more time on the internet, both for his job and on a personal basis. Patrick worked for a communication company that broadcast memes, short videos that went viral because they were fun, short and entertaining. He spent his days watching short sequences, choosing them, reworking them, classifying them. In the evening, he surfed the internet for his pleasure, or played online video games. One day, he picked up one of his favorite childhood books: Le Grand Meaulnes, by Alain-Fournier. And there, the breakdown. Impossible to enter the text. Every moment his attention drifted.

Patrick is a victim of attentional erosion. In his brain, two networks once coexisted: a neural network that directed his attention to external stimuli (images, sounds, videos, etc.) and another network that activated when he was not doing anything in particular, leading him then in a mental wandering. These two networks are called “backbone attention network” and “default mode network”, and we know, thanks to two decades of research, that they alternate between them: when we watch a video on the Internet, it is the dorsal attentional network that lights up and the vagrancy network that goes out. And when we stop the video, the wandering network turns on again while the dorsal attentional network turns off…

So today when Patrick (and any of us) picks up a book, he obviously needs to block his mind wandering network and activate his back attentional network. But the latter has become accustomed to being set in motion by hectic stimuli, rhythmic and colorful videos, which are renewed at a high rate, every ten seconds or so. Result: he can no longer be triggered by simple words or long sentences. He then gives way to the vagrancy network, and Patrick “picks up”. He is unable to chain more than three sentences.

floating moments

This phenomenon was measured by researchers from the universities of Sendai, Japan, and Tehran, Iran. The more a person is addicted to the Internet (they have distributed questionnaires giving them a web addiction score), the less they manage to block their network from wandering when they have to perform tasks requiring a little concentration. However, we know that the activity of the vagrancy network is experienced as rather unpleasant: experiences published in 2014 in the journal Science by the team of psychologist Timothy Wilson, at the University of Virginia, had shown that we do not like these moments of floating attention, which cause in many people a feeling of emptiness and boredom.

So, how to silence the network of vagrancy? The obvious solution is… internet! Videos, clicks, light stimuli that can be changed quickly, endlessly. Continuous news feeds, tweets that we consult until late hours instead of going to bed, to avoid waking up the vagrancy network and this disturbing feeling of floating. Especially since all this is possible with the help of a simple smartphone in your pocket. But obviously, this further weakens the dorsal attentional network. The vicious circle begins, creating the basis for addiction.

There is certainly another way to muzzle the vagrancy network: meditate (or take long walks in the forest). Mindfulness meditation precisely alternates these two neural networks in our brain, and teaches how to periodically turn off its wandering network through concentration alone. Without drums or trumpets. It takes effort, but when you get there, you can pick up that book you loved so much.

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Internet prevents us from concentrating


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