Divided Attention Disorder? Log off and read a book

By Colm O'Regan
Comedian and writer

Image caption,
DAD - a syndrome whereby you find yourself flipping from one thing to another on your computer

If you work in an office it's quite possible that you suffer from a condition called DAD. Now don't panic it's not serious and nothing a good book or a long walk won't cure.

My Internet browser has 24 tabs open. Among them are three separate attempts to reply to the same e-mail. My online banking session has timed out, and in the corner of my screen a Twitter feed is a never-ending scroll of news and links. Which I click. And click.

What's wrong with me?

What's wrong, is that I may have Divided Attention Disorder, or DAD. DAD encapsulates the growing phenomenon whereby the constant stream of online information could actually be changing the way our brains work.

I first read about this in a magazine while waiting to get my hair cut. The article is quite lengthy. Ironically the only reason I had the attention span to read all of it was that my local barber-shop has no mobile phone reception.

Concentration eroded

It wasn't always like this. There was a time when I browsed - or lived as we used to call it - my life in just one tab. I remember when I first started working. I was given tasks to do one at a time. And they were completed - one at a time. With no distractions.

My bosses were pleased. As a reward I was given more responsibility. More responsibility means many things, but most of all it means more e-mails. Previously, new messages arrived occasionally. I could even leave the new e-mail ping turned on.

But when I became more responsible, they poured in so quickly, it sounded like I had a pedestrian traffic light under my desk.

Several years of this kind of pattern has left my ability to concentrate eroded. In my current work as a comedian and freelance writer, I get fewer e-mails. When you have no boss, fewer things are your fault.

But I do have to look for inspiration and often research it online. With my enfeebled attention span this can be a fractious and unsatisfying experience of unfinished searches and trails gone cold, while out of the corner of my eye social networking updates whirr away.

It's the equivalent of sitting on the floor of a library desperately trying to remember what I was looking for with 20 books open around me, unable to concentrate because people keep giving me a thumbs up to tell me they "Like This".

'Google the plot'

The most unnerving thing that I've read about DAD is the theory that the rewiring of our brains caused by all that time online is affecting the rest of our lives. It is, apparently, encouraging us to seek instant gratification at the expense of deep thinking.

Image caption,
To assess the state of your brain, see if you can get lost in a good book

To assess the state of my brain I read a book. It's an Ian Rankin novel. The hero, Inspector Rebus attempts to solve a number of murders in Edinburgh against the backdrop of a G8 meeting.

I haven't read fiction in a while. Something has changed about my response to what I'm reading. Before, I loved to create a mental picture of Edinburgh, of its streets and courtyards. But now in my brain a voice is whispering: "Look it up on StreetView and see for yourself". The story alludes to Inspector Rebus' colourful past: "Google the plot of other books," says the voice.

"SHUT UP!" I scream inside my head.

Eventually, my old brain wins out. After about half an hour, I'm lost in the book. I've forgotten that it's even possible to communicate through a web of interconnected computers.

It's a relief to know that my brain is not permanently changed. I can't wait to tell everyone - on Facebook and Twitter.