The first step to keeping sharp when studying online seems beguilingly simple, and yet it is crucially important. It has to do with how you use hyperlinks. Put simply, do not let hyperlinks distract you from what you are currently reading.
Given how the human brain has been designed, we need very little encouragement to shift our attention from one object to another. The primitive state of man is to be in a condition of constant distractability. In earlier stages of human history, this helped us to survive. By being attentive to the smallest changes in our environment, our distractable brains helped us avoid being eaten by a predator or missing a crucial food source. As Nicholas Carr explained in The Shallows, “Our fast-paced, reflexive shifts in focus were once crucial to our survival. They reduced the odds that a predator would take us by surprise or that we’d overlook a nearby source of food. For most of history, the normal path of human thought was anything but linear.”
This means that, in one sense, the activity of attentive reading is unnatural to the brain. Attentive reading is work. It takes practice. It takes a concerted effort to ignore the visible distractions in our environment and the invisible distractions in our mind. Attentive reading goes against the human propensity for distraction, since it forces us to give sustained focus on one thing at the exclusion of everything else competing for our attention. The sustained, linear concentration of the reader develops neuro-pathways that are valuable yet somewhat unnatural to us as human beings.
But while it takes effort and practice to develop the neuropathways necessary for attentive reading, it takes very little effort for those neuropathways to be compromised. If we are not careful, the internet can change the reading experience from one of sustained concentration to one of perpetual distraction. It can turn mankind back to the primitive condition in our hunter-gatherer days when the state of perpetual distractibility was necessary for our survival.
In short, the internet can quickly become, what Cory Doctorow termed an “ecosystem of interruption technologies.” From animations, to hyperlinks, to pop-ups, to audible email notification, to live feeds, the internet seems designed to be always distracting our attention from one thing on to something else. In the process, the internet can compromise the neuropathways needed for attentive and reflective reading.
What does any of this have to do with managing hyperlinks? Simply this: refusing to immediately click on hyperlinks is one very small—but crucially important—way to resist the internet’s propensity to constantly distract our brain. But more about that in the next post.