I was whizzing down a highway in Detroit recently when a driver sped past me, calmly reading a magazine propped up on his dashboard. I was the only person in my car who was surprised.
Another day, I stopped by the business lounge at a Midwest airport, looking for a calm spot to work and think. I found two alcoves in the bustling space labeled “quiet room.” But these were the only two areas with televisions, and they were blaring, of course.
We inhabit a climate of distraction. Noisy, humming, cluttered environments now seem near-normal. Multitasking is a national pastime; we feel kind of sheepish doing just one thing. Hyperactivity is a mark of success. We’ve cultivated overflowing, ceaselessly mobile, split-focus habits of living — and thinking. Silence isn’t golden in this new day.
And yet, the costs of this culture of overload and continuous partial attention are beginning to hit home.
- The average worker switches tasks every three minutes on average, reports Gloria Mark of the University of California at Irvine. We’re spending more than a quarter of the workday dealing with interruptions and their needed recovery time, according to the business consulting firm Basex. And a third of workers say they are so busy or interrupted that they have no time to reflect on or process the work that they do. They have no time to think.
- Two-thirds of children under six live in homes that keep the TV on half or more of the time, an environment linked to attentional difficulties. Mothers multitask an average of 80 hours a week, up from 40 hours in 1975. Racing from activity to activity, families have little time to sit down to eat, to converse, or to be in the same room. They have no time to be together in the deepest sense of the word.
If we begin to sate ourselves on a steady diet of snippets and glimpses of one another, and begin to mistake techno-fluency and info-skimming with the cultivation of wisdom, we will slip into a dark time, an era of cultural decline.
But what can we do? How can we think and relate deeply in a complex, global culture? I’m cautiously optimistic. For if distraction is an increasingly corrosive element in our culture, then attention is the key to creating a caring, reflective, yet high-tech society. And today, we have the ability to harness our powers of attention more than ever.
Once an enigma, the mechanisms of attention — with its three pillars of focus, awareness, and judgment — are now becoming understood. Attention is now seen as akin to an organ system; it has an anatomy, a physiology, and a chemistry.
As well, evidence is mounting that our powers of attention can be bolstered and even attention deficits can be remedied. Using computer-based, behavioral, and meditative practices, scientists are boosting people’s powers of focus, awareness, and memory — and measuring the gains using new barometers of attentional prowess. The implications of these discoveries are revolutionary.
Inspired by skills training of monkeys, Michael Posner and Mary Rothbart at the University of Oregon have developed a five-day computer-based attention-training program for young children. After the training, six-year-olds show a pattern of activity in the anterior cingulate — a banana-shaped brain region that is ground zero for executive attention — similar to that of adults, along with a slight IQ boost and a marked gain in executive attention.
“We thought this was a long shot, maybe we’ll see some improvement and maybe we won’t,” says Posner, a neuroscientist renowned for his pioneering work deciphering attention. “Now I’ve changed my mind.” Inspired by their and others’ findings, he and Rothbart, a child development expert, are calling on schools to teach attention as an early learning discipline.
The second main avenue of work involves attention-training practices that are part of the 2,500-year-old practice of meditation. A subfield of neuroscience has been studying contemplatives’ brains for years, mainly in the realm of emotion and mood. But now leading scientists are beginning to show that, as practitioners long have claimed, even short doses of meditation can train attention.
Preliminary results from the largest attention-training study to date, which tracked 64 people meditating full-time for three months, reveal improved sustained attention and visual discrimination, says UC Davis neuroscientist Clifford Saron. After an eight-week introductory course in meditation, novices showed robust gains in focus skills, according to a 2007 study by Amishi Jha. As well, the gains showed intriguing evidence of carryover to a kind of focus distinct from the mindful breathing training. “If you spend thirty minutes a day and it makes a difference in your quality of attention, that is powerful,” says Jha.
Alarmed by many children’s inability to focus deeply on learning, dozens of schools across the country now have introduced some kind of mindful awareness practices and training into the classroom.
Such educational work is crucial because attention is an “overlooked” set of skills that are crucial for 21st-century success, says Ellen Galinky, president of the Families and Work Institute. “We all live in an overwhelming, overstimulating, information-overloaded world,” says Galinsky. “And unless you can pay attention, you can’t think, you can’t problem-solve, you can’t learn. It’s an underlying skill that is to me front and center to success at work, and at home.”
U.S. employers, parents, and educators are beginning to tally the costs of an inattentive culture. Neuroscientists are uncovering how attention can be bolstered. Could attention training, along with computer literacy and new forms of social collaboration, become the backbone of a 21st-century education?