When I worked as a teacher, we were always advised to split lessons into small chunks, because otherwise the attention of the students would start wandering. This seemed to make sense, especially when there was so much being said about how attention spans of today’s youth were so short. And having short activities that changed a lot did help keep students motivated.
But I don’t think this was down to attention span alone.
Many of the students I worked with played video games. Ask them what they’d been up to, and they’d talk about the games. When GTA3 came out, it was pretty much all some of them talked about. They spent hours playing the game, and complain that they were tired in school because they’d been up until the early hours.
If they could concentrate on one game for so long, what does this say about their attention span?
Of course, video games are designed to draw you in and keep you playing. They trigger dopamine rushes through constant rewards, and the fast pace, combined with beat-heavy music, increases adrenaline. Compared to hours driving round in a fast-paced game where you can control your own actions (and especially when you’re rewarded for doing things you’d never get away with in everyday life), doing ‘schoolwork’ is dull. Racing around a virtual world for hours is easy, but a few minutes taxing your brain to solve a maths problem using only pen and paper can feel like an eternity.
The issue isn’t attention span but concentration. It’s easier to do something fun than something we find boring. It’s also easier to enjoy an activity when it gives instant rewards, and when it engages so many of our senses. This is why many people prefer watching films and TV over reading fiction.
And this is one reason why reading is so important.
To explain, let me back up a bit.
When we read, all we have are words on a page. We need to decipher these words, and the sentences they form. We use different parts of our brain to see, to decipher, and then to understand. We need to create our own image of what the writer is describing, and we need to engage our empathy to catch the emotions in the text.
All this takes time. Think about a story like Fight Club. The film is longer than average, clocking in at 139 minutes. The book is fairly short, about 200 pages (under 50,000 words), and this takes the average reader over 200 minutes to read.
Let’s take another example—The Lord Of The Rings (the complete trilogy). The extended versions of Peter Jackson’s film versions clock in at around 650 minutes (almost 11 hours). The book is over 1000 pages, taking just over 23 hours to read.
Reading a book takes more time and more concentration than watching a film. So why bother? Why not get the story at a faster pace, with less effort? After all, it’s still a story, right?
But they’re not the same. There’s a richness to reading that is missing from film and TV (just as there are things that audio-visual media do better than text). Yes, reading requires more effort, but there are still rich rewards in the pages of a book.
Keen readers know this instinctively. They know that sometimes a slow passage is simply a lull in the pace, and that their perseverance will be rewarded when action kicks in over the next few pages or chapters. They know that long descriptions set the scene, and might well give insight into characters and events. They know that the dialogue is not simply characters talking, but is also character and story development. Even if a reader cannot articulate this, they understand that each word is important.
But not everything in a book is automatically on the page. A good writer will hint at things rather than spelling them out. There might be a particular phrase that is crafted to trigger an emotion, or to remind us of something that we have (almost) missed earlier on. An aside from a character might alert us to something happening off-page.
These things are not obvious, and so we have to concentrate if we are to pick up on them. To get the most from a book, we don’t merely read the words—we are called to analyse the text, and to consider both what is written and what is alluded to.
This is an important skill to learn. In life, we don’t get everything handed to us on a plate (at least, the vast majority of us don’t). Not everything is explained to us in terms we understand. We can’t have what we want the instant we demand it. To get anywhere, we have to work—and that takes effort and concentration.
Reading teaches us to concentrate before we are rewarded. It also teaches us to focus on both what is obvious and what is hidden. It teaches us to avoid distractions—not only from the world around us, but also from ourselves.
So reading helps us slow down in our fast lives (to read my thoughts on this, click here for The Importance of Reading Part 1), and it increases our concentration. But it is also important for other reasons, and I’ll continue with my thoughts on this topic in a couple of weeks.