Monday, November 22, 2010

Attention span and focus - problem/not a problem?

I have done several posts on how heavy computer and internet use might nudge our brain processes (in either a positive or detrimental way), so I was entertained by reading somewhat contrasting takes on this issue in yesterday's Sunday NY Times, Virginia Heffernan writing in the Sunday Magazine on "The Attention-Span Myth," and Matt Richtel's "Growing Up Digital, Wired for Distraction."
Clips from Heffernan:
...attention spans...have become the digital-age equivalent of souls...which might be measured by the psychologist’s equivalent of a tailor’s tape? ..isn’t there something just unconvincing about the idea that an occult “span” in the brain makes certain cultural objects more compelling than others? So a kid loves the drums but can hardly get through a chapter of “The Sun Also Rises”; and another aces algebra tests but can’t even understand how Call of Duty is played.

In other eras, distractibility wasn’t considered shameful. It was regularly praised, in fact — as autonomy, exuberance and versatility. To be brooding, morbid, obsessive or easily mesmerized was thought much worse than being distractible. In “Moby-Dick,” Starbuck tries to distract Ahab from his monomania with evocations of family life in Nantucket...sitting silently without fidgeting: that’s essentially what we want of children with bum attention spans, isn’t it? The first sign that a distractible child is doing “better” — with age or Adderall, say — is that he sits still...At some point, we stopped calling Tom Sawyer-style distractibility either animal spirits or a discipline problem. We started to call it sick..the problem with the attention-span discourse is that it’s founded on the phantom idea of an attention span. A healthy “attention span” becomes just another ineffable quality to remember having, to believe you’ve lost, to worry about your kids lacking, to blame the culture for destroying. Who needs it?
The Richtel article tells stories about students at Woodside High School in Silicon Valley's Redwood City California.  "Here, as elsewhere, it is not uncommon for students to send hundreds of text messages a day or spend hours playing video games, and virtually everyone is on Facebook." It is in environments like these that a generation of kids is being raised whose brains might be wired differently, habituated to distraction and to switching tasks, not to focus.  Many of Richtel's stories deal with the contest between the immediate gratifications of distractability  and doing homework and reading that builds a self, and a future. Richtel also provides an descriptions of several academic studies

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous11:21 AM

    How capable of long-term thinking/planning are distractable people?