Monday, July 13, 2009

Distracted - An Interview with Maggie Jackson on Attention

Maggie Jackson is the Boston Globe “Balancing Acts” Columnist and the author, most recently of and “Distracted: The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age” (Prometheus, 2008). Distracted explores our constantly hurried, multi-tasking world and its impact on our ability to pay attention, focus, cultivate human contact, and reflect. I asked Maggie to share more about her work on this book.

What inspired you to write Distracted?

I began thinking that I was going to write a book on technology so did a lot of research on that. The first high tech revolutions were during the 18th and 19th centuries. I explored the invention of the cinema, the phonograph, the railroad, and the telephone, and how we adapted to them, looking for clues on how we could better use our gadgets today. But I found that they were not separate revolutions or changes. These first technology revolutions sparked changes to time and space that we are still grappling with today. It is helpful to look far back into time to understand how our technologies are changing us. The idea of virtuality began in the time of the telegraph. The idea of a global village started with ships, cars, the railroad. It did not just come upon us a few years ago as we think of it. I had an epiphany that the issue was attention. All of these changes to time and space have affected our attention. That is how the book got started. It is an historical view of our technology and the science of our attention. Why do we multi-task? Why are we so wedded to our Blackberries? Why as a culture do we think we need to be available all of the time? The book explores these questions and their implications.

Please talk about the three pillars of attention.

Attention is fascinating and has been an enigma to scientists for hundreds of years. It is a human faculty that is not thought about much. Scientists began to discover that attention is an organ system, akin to our digestive or circulatory systems, in that parts of the brain and body work in complex alignment to perform the feat of attention. As well, attention isn’t just one thing as we would assume. There are three types of attention. One is focus, which is the spotlight of your mind. We use focus to relate to others or problem solve. A second type of attention is awareness or alerting. That’s akin to wakefulness or sensitivity to one’s surroundings. You can be focused on me but be half asleep, so these are related but separate types of attention! The third type of attention is executive attention, which is a package of higher order skills involved in judgment and decision-making, used in tasks such as writing a will, pondering an ethical problem or planning vacation.

While technology has helped make our lives easier in many ways, it also makes it more difficult. What a paradox! How is that so?

The key to understanding this paradox is abundance. We can connect with people anytime, anywhere, but the “always on” nature of this connectivity and sheer breadth of the connections makes it difficult to go deeply into the relationships. Similarly, we have so much data at our fingertips, yet do we go deeply? Are we turning information into knowledge and wisdom? To gain depth in relations or knowledge, we need time to think, to connect, and we need the discipline and effort to do so. We are humans, not machines. We cannot click or compute wisdom or intimacy.

How can we encourage more focus and stronger attention in our students?

Attention is a stepping-stone; it is how we interact with the world. As teachers know, attention is crucial at school. Our collective challenge is to create a culture that values attention and focus, not just tidbits of focus and snippets of data. Our schools and communities have to work toward the goal of creating focus and awareness in the best ways. First of all, it is important for parents, teachers, and students to put this issue on the table. Talk about the cost and benefits of multi-tasking, when and where it is useful or beneficial. Filling out college applications with 12 active windows on the screen may not be wise. It is fragmenting attention. We need to talk about this issue.

Second, we need to reconsider the value systems related to attention in our culture. In schools, the first hand raised in the classroom is considered the smart kid. It’s the impulsive thinker who’s often praised, rather than the slower, more thoughtful listener. As well, what is the marker of success in the corporate world? An executive running flat out, madly multitasking, not able to carefully listen. We need to rethink that. Public spaces like airport and doctor’s offices are noisy, screen filled spaces. We need to rethink our values in order to recapture focus and step away from an attention-deficient society.

In order to create what I call a renaissance of attention, we also need to individually nurture people’s powers of focus. We should be teaching children that attention is a skill set that takes hard work to build. We need training for attentional athletes! You don’t get to Wimbledon without practice and guidance and the same is true to become a focused, attentive individual. One Canadian researcher, Adele Diamond, helps toddlers learn to focus and listen by having them tell each other stories – with the listener holding an ear, and the storyteller holding a mouth. These props are physical reminders to pay attention. In classrooms across the country, many teachers are adopting Buddhist mindfulness practices. For instance, teachers ring a bell to prompt a moment of reflection or stillness during the day. Michael Posner, perhaps the greatest attention neuroscientist advocates that attention should be part of our pre-school curriculum.

Connection can refer not only intimacy but connectivity in terms of integration of many seemingly disparate subjects. How can closer human relations and perceiving connectivity among various subjects help students learn?

These are separate but important aspects of learning and attention. Closer human relations are absolutely core to learning, and core to being human. So much of what we are faced with today, with the speed of life, the changes around us, and role of machines in our lives, prompts us to question, what does it mean to be a human? What kind of relations do we want with each other? How can we adapt to a crowded, technological planet? Fragmented moments liked Twitter do not do justice to learning or relationships. Deep connectivity is all about paying attention to one another as part of rich educational experience. Kids are averaging six hours of exposure to non-print media a day. Half of kids six and under live in a home where the TV is on most of the time. Kids are faced with an environment that undermines their ability to pay attention.

Another skill built from attention is pattern-making, or the ability to take an inter-disciplinary perspective. Hypertext allows us to make an associational journey of learning; on the Net we hopscotch across information. And that is beneficial, but easily leads to skimming. In contrast, pattern-making or critical thinking is a deeper, more difficult process of building connections. It involves uncertainty and discomfort and will power – and is the building block of creativity and wisdom. We can’t let Internet learning – i.e. research based on what’s first up on google – substitute for this more difficult type of cognition.

Connectivity in learning also entails keeping a big-picture perspective. Walter Ong once wrote, “to know something as fully as possible, we need to be close to it…and we need at the same time to be distanced from it, to have it ‘in perspective’ an object notably distinct from ourselves.” What I think he is trying to say with this quote is that there is an overarching meta-cognitive aspect to learning. The Intenet, Googling, Twitter, and Facebook, don’t always allow a big picture perspective.

How do conventional schools further exacerbate attention problems?

A good school today is a school that uses technology wisely. We don’t need to ban it but we do need to use it wisely. In many ways, we have gone overboard in adopting tech tools in schools. The mantra has been, ‘If it is technological and new, it must be good.’ We are lovers of the new, the fast and the efficient. We have adopted technology in our lives and schools without question, thinking we must be better for it, but we’ve learned hard lessons in doing that. We need to do better at using the technological tools wisely and having a thoughtful place for them.

Hurrying children through the day needs to be rethought. It is not uncommon to have very little time for eating. Many kids get 10 minutes for lunch in schools and sometimes clubs meet during lunch so they are not eating. This is ignoring our human need for social time to eat together, and our need for time to reflect on what we’ve learned. We need to refuel, and not with a Power Bar.

How can parents model focus, attention, and intimacy for our children?

Giving the gift of attention to kids is the most important thing you can do. Teaching attention is to role model attention. Remember that what you attend to is what you deem worthy of your attention. If you come to the school play and fiddle with your gadgets, what message are you giving your child about respect – for the performers or for other audience members? If you are at the dinner table taking phone calls, allowing a family exchange to become a Swiss cheese moment, what is the message you are conveying? If we can stop and listen and truly pay attention to our children, we’ll be teaching them to relate well to others and helping them learn to focus at the same time.

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