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Mindful : December 2013
December 2013 mindful 57 performance are losing their ability for conversation, let alone the soul-searching discussions that can enrich the college yea rs. And, he says, “no birthday, concert, hangout session, or party can be enjoyed without taking the time to dista nce yourself from what you are doing” to make sure that those in your digital world know instantly how much fun you a re having. Then there are the basics of attention, the cog- nitive muscle that lets us follow a story, see a task through to the end, learn, or create. In some ways, the endless hours young people spend sta ring at electronic gadgets may help them acquire spe- cific cognitive skills. But there are concerns and questions about how those sa me hours may lead to deficits in core mental skills. An eighth-grade teacher tells me that for many years she has had successive classes of students read the same book, Edith Ha milton’s Mythology. Her students have loved it—until five years or so ago. “I sta rted to see kids not so excited—even high-achieving groups could not get engaged with it,” she told me. “They say the reading is too hard; the sentences too complicated; it takes a long time to read a page.” This teacher wonders if perhaps her students’ ability to read has been somehow compromised by the short, choppy messages they get in texts. One student confessed he had spent two thousand hours in the last year playing video games. She adds, “It’s hard to teach comma rules when you a re competing with the World of WarCraft.” The Impoverishment of Attention Then there are the costs of attention decline among adults. In Mexico, an advertising rep for a large ra- dio network complains, “A few years ago you could make a five-minute video for your presentation to an ad agency. Today you have to keep it to a minute and a half. If you don’t grab them by then, everyone starts checking for messages.” A college professor who teaches film tells me he’s reading a biography of one of his heroes, the leg- enda ry French director François Truffaut. But, he finds, “I can’t read more than two pages at a stretch. I get this overwhelming urge to go online and see if I have a new email. I think I’m losing my ability to sustain concentration on any thing serious.” The inability to resist checking ema il or Facebook rather than focus on the person talking to us leads to what the sociologist Erving Goffman, a masterful obser ver of social interaction, called an “away,” a gesture that tells another person “I’m not interest- ed” in what’s going on here and now. At the third All Things D(igital) conference in 2005, conference hosts unplugged the Wi-Fi in the main ballroom because of the glow from laptop screens, indicating that those in the audience were not glued to the action onstage. They were away, in a state, as one participant put it, of “continuous partial attention,” a mental blurriness induced by an overload of information inputs from the speak- ers, the other people in the room, and what they were doing on their laptops. To battle such partial focus today, some Silicon Valley workplaces have banned laptops, mobile phones, and other digital tools during meetings. After not checking her mobile phone for a while, a publishing executive confesses she gets “a jangly feeling. You miss that hit you get when there’s a text. You know it’s not right to check your phone when you’re with someone, but it’s addictive.” So she and her husband have a pact: “When we get home from work, we put our phones in a drawer. If it’s in front of me I get anxious; I’ve just got to check it. But now we try to be more present for each other. We talk.” Our focus continually fights distractions, both inner and outer. The question is, what a re our distractions costing us? An executive at a financial firm tells me, “When I notice that my mind has been somewhere else during a meeting, I wonder what opportunities I’ve been missing right here.” Patients are telling a physician I know that they are “self-medicating ” with drugs for attention deficit disorder or narcolepsy to keep up with their work. A law yer tells him, “If I didn’t take this, I couldn’t read contracts.” Once patients needed a diag nosis for such prescriptions; now, for many, those medications have become routine perfor- mance enhancers. Growing numbers of teenagers are faking symptoms of attention deficit to get → Inner focus attunes us to our intuitions and guiding values. Other focus smooths our connections to the people in our lives. And outer focus lets us navigate the larger world.