The unread message

Five neuroscientists get into a raft. That might be the start of a mildly funny joke, but in this case it’s the premise of an article by Matt Richtel in today’s New York Times, the latest installment in the paper’s series on “computers and the brain.” Richtel accompanies the scientists as they float down a remote stretch of the San Juan River in Utah, beyond the reach of cell towers and wi-fi signals. The impetus for the trip was, Richtel reports, “to understand how heavy use of digital devices and other technology changes how we think and behave, and how a retreat into nature might reverse those effects.”

Two of the neuroscientists start the trip believing that the Net and related technologies can undermine people’s ability to pay attention, impeding deep thinking and even causing psychological problems. The other three are more sanguine about the effects of the technologies. To see what transpires, you’ll need to read the article.

The piece raises one particular idea that I found to be intriguing, and troubling. As the trip proceeds, the scientists begin to wonder “whether attention and focus can take a hit when people merely anticipate the arrival of more digital stimulation”:

“The expectation of e-mail seems to be taking up our working memory,” [Johns Hopkins professor Steven] Yantis says.

Working memory is a precious resource in the brain. The scientists hypothesize that a fraction of brain power is tied up in anticipating e-mail and other new information — and that they might be able to prove it using imaging.

“To the extent you have less working memory, you have less space for storing and integrating ideas and therefore less to do the reasoning you need to do,” says [University of Illinois professor Art] Kramer, floating nearby.

In The Shallows, I review a series of studies that indicate that the fast-paced delivery of messages and other information online overloads working memory, leading to a state of perpetual distractedness. In my research I didn’t come across the idea that the mere anticipation of receiving a fresh burst of information would also add to our cognitive load. But it makes sense. Research shows, for example, that office workers tend to glance at their email inbox 30 or more times an hour, which seems to me to be pretty clear evidence that even when we’re not reading messages we’re thinking about receiving messages – not just emails, but texts, Facebook updates, tweets, and so on.

This would also help explain why the Net continues to distract us even when we’re not online. Part of our mind is still thinking about that new message that might have just arrived in our inbox. What makes that hypothetical unread message particularly distracting is that it could actually be important. You won’t know until you’ve read it. Admit it: The suspense is killing you.

9 thoughts on “The unread message


    As someone whose job it is to monitor the company’s incoming e-mail, I can attest to the distractions it causes for employees. All to often I receive calls concerning e-mails that haven’t even been sent, much less held up or lost by our system. And it affects me as well, with a nagging feeling the system just snagged an e-mail addressed to a company VIP!

  2. Kriskras

    The distractedness makes sense to me and I can relate to it. This morning I was in the tram. All of a sudden a man enters the tram. He asks me to show my ticket. He tries to explain me something Czech that I don’t understand. Apparently I had forgotten to scan the ticket. A woman helps me. I hear her say my name. I didn’t recognize her at first. I didn’t expect her to be on the tram. I had only met her a few nights before, but was thinking about when she would accept my friend request. The same thing happened the day before. A friend leaves the tram the same time I do. I don’t expect her there. I am very surprised. I am not when she sends me an e-mail.

  3. Tom Chandler

    After reading “The Shallows,” I posted an article on my fly fishing blog asking a simple question; will extensive Internet use decrease our ability to enjoy reflective, slow-paced pastimes like fly fishing? (In many ways, fly fishing is similar to becoming deeply absorbed in a book.)

    Thanks for providing the natural follow-up post: Does fly fishing offer us a way to combat Internet attention disorder?

    That our digital obsession stays with us even when away from a computer is a no-brainer; I think about plenty of things when I’m not doing them (good books I’m reading, fly fishing, sex, etc) – what’s interesting is the elevation of relatively mundane communications to that status. Has the tweet been sent yet that deserves that kind of mindshare?

  4. William

    Nick writes: “The piece raises one particular idea that I found to be intriguing, and troubling. As the trip proceeds, the scientists begin to wonder “whether attention and focus can take a hit when people merely anticipate the arrival of more digital stimulation”

    I think this is obvious, the answer is yes. It’s called distraction, and humans have been getting distracted for 1000’s of years. The things that distract us change as life changes but they are still simply distractions.

    Attention is an action, it’s either present by making an effort to focus and stay attentive, or it isn’t if you lose yourself in something other than what you had intended to focus on. Nothing can rob you of attention, we can’t blame anyone or anything other than our own lack of will and aim if attention is absent.

    Again it comes down to the way we proceed through our day and life, do we have an aim or are we merely as leaves in a torrent of raging water.

  5. L. M. Sacasas

    I recently read Kurt Vonnegut’s “Harrison Bergeron” and was struck by how the story presents a potent image of the mental costs of distraction discussed so often by Nick Carr. In the story the intellectually adept are neutralized by a state-imposed radio transmitter that regularly emits a blaring noise to inhibit complex thinking. We seem to be imposing the distractions, more pleasant ones to be sure, on ourselves.

  6. wolfgang

    After 3 months of waiting for the book I am just starting “The Shallows” – comparing Mc Luhans beginnings and your prologue. Amazing. I feel like a gold washer comparing and thinking and wondering. I also had to remember a text I wrote & published 1996 about the HUMAN MACHINE. And it seems that I knew it back then that the SCROLLING-mode is the new WEAPON of the new MEDIUM. for me the question is not what medium was beaten, but what other modes were sacrificed.

    would be great if you send me your email-adress so that I can send you the textpiece I mentioned. (its a translation from German but I think its readable ;-)

  7. Paul Lindstrom

    Hi Nick, by mistake I ordered “The Shallows” as an audio book instead of a regular printed book. While I have good experiences from audio books before, in this case I was at first annoyed with my mistake. I had preferred the printed book for some reason. But as it turned out, being down with a heavy cold, it’s quite nice to have your text spoken to me – in a funny way it’s back to the oral tradition of Sokrates! And I listen via my laptop, and can look up some of the referenses you mention frequently. I’m half way through, and so far I enjoy it immensly. Will be back later with some feedback when I’ve finished it. You raise some important topics, that’s for sure! /Paul, a Swede in the UK

  8. Sam Clemmons

    One might also wonder the effect on the rate of heart attacks for workers being bombarded with alerts, text messages and emails. We know that a single shock can initiate a heart attack. What is the cumulative effect of many tiny shock over time in vulnerable people? Could the spikes in adrenalin and BP caused by them have a long term effect in susceptible people predisposed to heart problems of strokes?

  9. Zoebutt

    I read ‘The Shallows’ during a road trip through Southern Colorado and the Four Corners area where there was no electronic reception. As others noted, the anticipation of an electronic message was almost unbearable. That is, until I became so absorbed in the book that I could think of nothing else. Indeed, that was a respite from eblast overload.

    I wonder what effect the eblastosphere has on the entire human physiology, brain aside. My heart rate clearly raises when I am unable to grab a mouse and surf email.

Comments are closed.