Undivided Attention

I didn’t realize there was an explanation for it. I just thought I had a poor memory. But I read something recently that I think might explain what’s happening. It’s not just the inevitable advance of years that makes me forget things—it’s that I, like so many of us in this digital age, have unwittingly fallen into the habit of “outsourcing” my memory.*

Why memorize when my phone keeps track of important contact information? Why labor to recall multiplication tables, the names of world leaders, or the spelling of difficult words when a computer can do that for me? In fact, why memorize anything at all when Mr. Google or Ms. Siri are happy to provide all the information I need? Everything I could ever want to know is available to me with a voice command or a couple of taps on a keyboard.

But there’s a problem. Information quickly “learned” in little random bites—like when we look something up on Wikipedia—is just as quickly forgotten. There is no context for it. Without context, our brains don’t sort and store information as well. So what we “know” in the moment we are just as likely to forget an hour later. Does anyone out there know what I’m talking about?

There’s another problem. All my multi-tasking—especially digital multi-tasking like checking emails, texts, looking at YouTube videos, and traipsing around on Facebook—is affecting my ability to concentrate. My mind is not content to just be still anymore. It wants a constant feed of new information. It tells me I’m bored if I don’t have something continually stimulating me.

But it’s not just me, obviously—it’s you, too. Wonderful as our technology is, it is affecting the way our brains process information and the way we invest our attention.

God used these basic but disturbing facts to wake me up to an old spiritual discipline I’ve neglected for too long:  memorization. I had let it go when online Scriptures became so available. When I could call up any verse in any translation in just a second on my phone, why go to the trouble of memorizing? That was my reasoning.

But apparently I need to go to that trouble. Why?

  • I don’t want my mind to be captive to the stream of whatever (usually meaningless) is coming through my media feeds (see 2 Corinthians 10:5). Memorizing God’s truth gives me an alternative. I can discipline my mind to focus on something that will actually feed and nourish my soul.
  • I want to have raw material internalized so that I can use it for prayer, worship, encouragement, and guidance at any time or place.
  • By memorizing longer texts, the Holy Spirit can draw on these to stir His thoughts in me (see John 14:26).
  • Having a storehouse of life-giving words is a real treasure on sleepless nights, in times of stress or crisis, and when we need words at the tips of our tongues to encourage others.
  • Reviewing memorized texts provides a great way of “redeeming the time” (see Ephesians 5:16) while waiting in line, standing in traffic, and other times when I’m tempted to get impatient or waste time on mindless internet activities.

I’ve started modestly. I memorized the expanded version of the Serenity Prayer (see “When I Feel Too Responsible”). And I’m half-way through memorizing Psalm 145. Next up, Psalm 37. So far, it’s been really good for me. It’s been affirming to see that my brain really can do this. And encouraging that I have something internalized with which I can give my undivided attention to God.

*The grist for my thoughts in this post came from Sherry Turkle’s thought-provoking book, Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age.


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