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Why it’s so hard to read a book right now, explained by a neuroscientist

“We’re trying to resolve an uncertainty that is unresolvable.”

A masked woman reads a book in the main library of Krakow, Poland, May 7, 2020.
Artur Widak/NurPhoto via Getty Images
Constance Grady is a senior correspondent on the Culture team for Vox, where since 2016 she has covered books, publishing, gender, celebrity analysis, and theater.

Something I’ve heard quite often during the pandemic is, “I can’t read anymore.” That’s mostly because I write a recommendations column where I match people with books to suit their moods, and the mood a lot of people are in right now is “terrified, angry, and sad,” which makes it hard for them to focus on anything, even a book.

For people who are used to self-soothing with a favorite novel, the inability to read is a loss. A small loss, given the scale of tragedy we are all dealing with right now, but a loss nonetheless. So I wanted to find out more about why the state of constant anxiety so many people are living in has left a lot of us unable to read.

I called up Oliver J. Robinson, a neuroscientist and psychologist based at the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience at University College London. Robinson studies the neuroscience of anxiety and depression, and he agreed to walk me through what we know about how anxiety affects the way our brains work. Our conversation covered the difference between fear and anxiety, why uncertainty is so unpleasant to us, and why the coronavirus pandemic is the most uncertain thing imaginable.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Constance Grady

So, anecdotally, a lot of people are telling me that they’re having trouble reading or engaging in other hobbies that require concentration, and it seems like that inability is connected to how anxious people are because of the pandemic. So how does anxiety affect our attention spans?

Oliver J. Robinson

To be honest with you, I don’t really know and neither does anybody. Anybody claiming to know anything definitively is not being honest with you. But there are some things we can say about anxiety in general.

One is, it’s a normal thing that we all feel from time to time. It’s adaptive, by which I mean that it is usually, under most circumstances, a good thing that helps you avoid harm and get away from bad things. The classic example is walking home in the dark. You’re anxious, you’re aroused: It means that you’re more like to notice the shadow moving in the corner, which you think might be an assailant but is actually just a tree. That is useful, because if it was an assailant, you would be ready to run away, and you might escape. Everyone feels that [anxiety] from time to time, and a lot more are people feeling it right now, because it’s a normal adaptive thing.

There’s also pathological anxiety. You can get into all sorts of difficult questions when you start asking what is pathological, but broadly speaking: That’s when it gets to the point where you’re unable to do things that you would normally do, more frequently than you would like. Probably the best way to describe it is that a person recognizes in themselves that their anxiety is making them have difficulty concentrating, have difficulty sleeping, and so on and so forth. Then it shifts from being something that is adaptive, normal, and helpful into something that is a bit more pathological.

But of course it’s not really a binary; there are shades of gray everywhere. There are these sort of vague heuristics, but if you’re walking home in the dark, and you’re feeling anxious, that should dissipate. If you’re feeling anxious and then you get home and you stay anxious, and then you stay anxious for the next week, that’s probably not helpful. That’s when you might consider it pathological. But in general, anxiety is a normal, adaptive, helpful thing.

Constance Grady

Is there any go-to definition of anxiety that we can use here?

Oliver J. Robinson

Animal researchers are good at operational definitions because they can control the environment really well, and they make a definition of anxiety which I think is quite useful. It’s a distinction between fear and anxiety, which are both responses to negative things.

Fear is about something that is predictable that you can understand. You know what it is, you know when it starts, you know when it ends. It’s contained. If I’m afraid of spiders and I see a spider in front of me, then I can see it, I don’t like it, it scares me — but then somebody puts a glass on the spider and takes it out of the room. And then I know it’s gone away, and I’m not showing a fear response anymore. That’s fear.

Anxiety is about uncertainty. There’s no beginning or end. You can’t see it. There’s no spatial or temporal constraint. So if I were spider-phobic and you put me in a room and you said, “There’s a spider somewhere in this room,” I would be showing an anxiety response. I can’t see the spider, but I know it’s there.

Based on this definition, coming from animal work with electric shocks and things like that, anxiety is about uncertainty. If you can’t see something, you don’t know when it’s going to end, you don’t know enough about it, you just show a long duration response.

From a neurobiological perspective, fear and anxiety are processed by different circuits within the brain. There are various neurotransmissions associated with them, and you can selectively change one or the other. And if you change an animal’s fear response, you don’t necessarily knock out its anxiety response, or vice versa. Again, there’s nuance there, but that’s a rough heuristic.

So what is it about anxiety? The fact that it doesn’t end means that the feeling is prolonged. With the fear response, you see the spider and it comes and goes. But anxiety doesn’t have that constraint. So much about recovering from anxiety and trying to avoid the feeling of anxiety is about trying to resolve that uncertainty.

Constance Grady

Which brings us to the uncertainty of the pandemic, right?

Oliver J. Robinson

The pandemic that we’re in is the most uncertain thing possible. You don’t know when it’s going to end, whether you’re going to get it. You don’t even know what it is, really. And all of a sudden, everything in your environment is dangerous. Door handles are dangerous. Other people are dangerous. It’s the most uncertain thing.

It’s also completely uncontrollable. I can’t control whether another person’s going to jog at me on the other side of the street.

But what I can do is seek information. I can go on Twitter, I can go on the internet, I can search nonstop, trying to resolve this uncertainty.

The problem is that you’re never going to actually resolve it. It’s not like tomorrow someone’s going to go, “Here’s the solution to coronavirus. Here’s the vaccine.” What we’re doing is trying to resolve this uncertainty that is unresolvable.

And in the end, you’re just promoting this anxiety. You’re trying to find the answer; you can’t find the answer; you hear about this conspiracy theory, that conspiracy theory. It just gets worse and worse and worse.

So why are people having difficulty concentrating? That’s part of the explanation: They’re trying to resolve an uncertainty that is unresolvable.

Constance Grady

This is maybe not an answerable question, but is there a specific part of cognitive function that is classically disrupted by anxiety?

Oliver J. Robinson

If you look at the classic diagnostic criteria, there are things like, short-term memory can be problematic. Concentration, which broadly speaking is a bit of everything: a bit of cognitive control, a bit of executive function, and so on and so forth. But a problem with psychiatric disorders in general is there is no one thing. There are as many diagnoses as there are people.

One person might have difficulty remembering things, or might have difficulty staying on task, or might have difficulty not focusing on negative things. Whereas another person has a completely different flavor. So it’s very hard to say, “This one function is affected by anxiety.”

But there are some broad things. Things like working memory. One of my students is working on time perception, how quickly you think things are moving. He’s shown in his PhD and a million different studies that anxiety makes time move fast.

But what we’re talking about here is a little square on a screen. The difference between two things and five seconds. Whether that scales up to something like, “I’m in a car accident and everything feels like it’s moving really quickly,” that’s an inferential leap. Which psychologists love making, but honest psychologists shouldn’t.

That’s true of all of these other cognitive functions as well. When I’m talking about working memory, I’m not talking about “oh, crap, where are my keys.” I’m talking about a study where you ask people to memorize six different digits, seven different digits, eight different digits. Which is an artificial environment.

The other thing clouding all of this is, psychiatric illness in general — whether it’s something like psychosis, bipolar disorder, anxiety, which all on the face of it are very different — they all have similar flavors of effect at a broad cognitive level. They have a sort of dampening effect.

That could be to do with psychiatric condition, but it’s probably not. It’s probably to do with other confounding factors. Mental unhealth is also associated with poverty and socioeconomic status and other things.

So it’s hard to really pinpoint one thing anxiety is doing that’s making it hard to do one thing. One person’s anxiety is completely different to another person’s anxiety. But broadly speaking, there are lots of things that seem a little bit impaired.

On the other hand, there are lots of things that are a little bit improved. Going back to the idea that anxiety is an adaptive function, anxiety promotes the ability to detect salient information. When you’re feeling anxious, you’re more primed to notice that movement in the corner, which is not an impairment. It’s a facilitation. That’s because anxiety is this adaptive state that promotes harm avoidance.

It’s quicker to run away or work out spatial planning, so people’s spatial working memory is improved, but then their verbal working memory area might be a bit impaired. Who knows why, but one sort of hand-wavy explanation might be that it’s a seesaw: You’re better at remembering spaces, but you’re worse at remembering random lists of digits. But I’d be lying if I tried to say this is what anxiety is, and this is why people are having difficulty concentrating. Sorry!

Constance Grady

No, this makes a lot of sense, thank you, even if it is not tidily in 500 words.

Oliver J. Robinson

The certainty/uncertainty idea I think is quite general. In a few words: Trying to resolve uncertainty in an uncertain time is impossible. And it’s anxiety-genic in itself.