The turmoil and temptation of the Twitter age is breaking my attention-deficit brain

The turmoil and temptation of the Twitter age is breaking my attention-deficit brain
Illustration by Ali Blackwood

Odysseus had a tightly tied rope, a mast and a crew with wax-plugged ears to stop himself from dashing his ship against the rocky shoals.

Me? I have an internet app that, for 25 excruciating minutes at a time, stops me from checking Twitter.

You don't really know, however, how deep an addiction is until you try to fight it.

During those 25-minute breaks imposed by the Strict Workflow app, I still found myself clicking back to Twitter whenever I encountered the slightest bit of writer's block.

"Page blocked until a break timer starts," the Strict Workflow app chides every time. "Back to work!"

A few minutes later, I check again. Still blocked. Then again. Blocked. 13 minutes left. Still blocked.

It's not just the sense that I'm addicted that creeps me out. It's the Black Mirror-horror possibility that the app has been rewriting my brain. It's that the app has managed to worm its way into the cracks of attention-deficit-addled mind, to exploit the vulnerabilities, sap my energy, and erode my talent.

And I'm not sure if I can concentrate long enough to figure out a way to stop it.

For a reporter with ADHD, Twitter offered the sort of deal with the devil impossible to pass up: You'll never be bored again.

Journalists like me crave to be read, after all. Twitter gives us brief flashes of glory, the pathetic but undeniable thrill of seeing their published one-liner get retweeted 200 times. Worse, we're information addicts, blessed and cursed with an undying, desperate need to know everything and need to know it now.

For the information addict, Twitter's like being on a glorious, unending bender.

Information is pleasure. Dopamine — that lovely brain chemical connected to pleasure — drives you back to the source of that pleasure faster and faster and faster until you want nothing else.

These days, I've got 13 Twitter columns on Tweetdeck — 13 dopamine-drenched compulsion loops — streaming full blast at all times.

The torrent has made me a better reporter: Immerse yourself in a firehose of news for nearly every single waking hour, and you end up positively soaked in information.

But it's done something awful to my ability to write.

Next time you're giving a wedding toast, ask your nephew to blast an air horn every few seconds during your speech. That's what it's like to write with Twitter in the background.

Or it's worse. Lately, sometimes simply getting from the start of a sentence to the end feels like wading through a swamp. I'm sinking further with every step, until I'm up to my neck in muck, unable to move my arms or see through the fog.

ADHD isn't new for me. I was that irritating guy in your college class who'd ask ceaseless questions because it was the only way I could pay attention. But back then it wasn't a weakness, exactly. Curiosity made me more obsessive. Stray thoughts made me more creative. Both good traits for a writer.

But our brains are plastic, moldable things, writes Nicholas Carr in his 2011 Pulitzer-Prize-nominated book The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains. Spend too much time skimming vast amounts of bite-sized information, Carr writes, and your neural pathways get rewritten to make yourself better at skimming and worse at deep understanding.

I can't prove that Twitter's made my ADHD worse. But there's plenty of reasons to suspect it.

"Psychological research long ago proved what most of us know from experience: frequent interruptions scatter our thoughts, weaken our memory, and make us tense and anxious," writes Carr. "The net seizes our attention only to scatter it."

At its core, writing is about concentration. You've got immerse yourself in an idea or a phrase. The worst thing you can do is to abandon a half-written thought, at the first sign of boredom and difficulty, and check Twitter.

Lately I find myself clicking through dozens of Chrome tabs with increasing speed. I get split-second flashes of images, the tabs flashing like strobe lights, my brain dancing mindlessly to the beat.

ADHD isn't always about juking from one thought to another. Sometimes, it's experiencing every thought at once, being flooded with so much mental noise, it's indistinguishable from thinking nothing at all. The gulf between words and meaning grows into a chasm. Speech sounds distant and fuzzy. I can't think good no more.

A few years ago, medication probably saved my career. Methylphenidate — 20 milligrams, extended release — felt like the superpowered pills from Limitless. I'd pop one, and I was smart again. Concepts had clearly defined shapes and sharp edges. A followed B, which then snapped directly into C. It was glorious.

But in the last few months, methylphenidate has lost its magic. Upping the dosage hasn't helped. The swamp is getting foggier and the muck is getting thicker. This, I think, is how it feels to be that Stephen King character whose mind starts to slip.

Maybe it's that my tolerance to the medication has increased.

Or maybe it's that Twitter, in the age of Trump, has become all the more pernicious.

To become president, Donald Trump didn't just harness Twitter — he hijacked it. Twitter became meaner, faster. The half-life of a news cycle fell to 140 characters or less. Trump's tweets are wild expressions of a president's id, a constant stream of insults, misspellings, absurdities and rants — each one sparking a cascade of punditry, rage, snark and punchlines. And then he tweets again, and the cycle starts over.

Who could possibly concentrate on work with a bonkers reality show about the direction of the country playing out in another tab?

I've tried to adapt. Work earlier when my mind's sharper. Drink more coffee. Bold the sentence I'm working as soon as I find my attention drifting so I can someday find my way back.

And yes, I can shut off Twitter. But padlocking your fridge shut doesn't make you any less hungry. Temporarily stamping out a fire doesn't un-burn the living room. Tying yourself to the mast doesn't suddenly make you a better sailor.

And as soon as my 25 minutes are up, my destination is assured. It's back to the siren song and the rocky shoals and — oh my god — Trump just tweeted a nuclear war threat.

Because he can't stay away either. ♦