The Attention Recession

Photo Stuart Miles/

Photo Stuart Miles/

Lately I’ve had the uncomfortable sensation that someone, or something, has been tinkering with my brain, moving things around, connecting circuits and memories and synapses in ways they weren’t connected before. It’s not that I’m losing my mind exactly—though we do obsess about green tea, crossword puzzles, and red wine in our house, since Alzheimer’s runs in the family-but my mind is changing and I’m not thinking the way I used to think.

Getting completely immersed in a book or even a long magazine article used to be the most natural thing in the world for me. I’d spend hours happily adrift in a sea of prose. Now my concentration goes overboard after just a few pages. I get anxious and start looking for something else to do. And let’s face it, there’s always something else to do.

I blame it in part on the Web. I don’t want to diss it too much, since it supplies a large part of my income, and has made finding sources for stories a breeze, but it’s a huge time and attention vacuum. Even when I’m not working, I’m scanning Facebook and Twitter, reading and writing e-mails, fixing pictures in Photoshop, perusing headlines, watching videos or downloading podcasts.

Then there’s parenthood, an enemy of concentration if ever there was one. Since I became a mom I haven’t stopped multitasking. Even when I’m sleeping I’ve got one ear cocked to make sure my child is still breathing. And when my son is away from me, the other ear is always perched at attention in case the phone rings. It could be the emergency room, or the school principal, or another parent calling to warn me about some horrible disease going through the school.

Yes, parenthood is awful for concentration, but great for the imagination, and that constant fear that something awful will happen now that you’ve got a great big piece of your heart walking around in the world without you.

“I call this concentration thing ‘Adult onset ADD,’ said my friend Angie. “It probably started with child number one, but has progressed rapidly since. Task completion is often difficult. Getting ready for the day involves not just the bathroom and closet, like in the old days. It generally includes the kitchen for breakfast and lunch making, homework signing, etc.; laundry room (gotta get a load going); home office to get the computer booted up for the day; and a ride to school for the ‘drop and run away quickly so I volunteer for anything’ of child number three. Most days I remember to take off my bunny slippers, but it’s a little embarrassing to get to the bagel shop and realize they’re still on. Hopefully I’ve remembered my bra.”

“We all forgot what it was like to finish a sentence, let alone a conversation, once we started bringing kids to social gatherings,” said my friend Tanya, handing me a glass of wine, which probably doesn’t help with my concentration, but does help with my mood.

My friend Janet sent me a text. “It starts with pregnancy and ‘Baby Brain.’ I believed everyone who said it was hormones and that it would get better when the baby was born. Wrong! Then we blamed it on ‘sleep deprivation.’ Then, when my child was a toddler, I figured it was because I was overwhelmed with watching her, Secret Service-style, every minute. But watch out, menopause is the worst,” she warned.

I’d lost my focus by that time.

Rather than blame the kid, I could blame it on technology. What it seems to be doing is chipping away my capacity for focused concentration and contemplation. My mind now expects to take in information the way the technology distributes it-as a swiftly moving stream of particles.

Or maybe my survival instinct kicked in when I read her menopause comment and it won’t allow my brain to go there yet.

I’ll have to think about that later when I have more time and I can concentrate.

When Leslie’s not struggling with adult onset whatchamacalit, she can be reached at For more columns visit

Originally published in the Santa Barbara Daily Sound on May 15, 2009.

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