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Attention: An Ability

*This essay is an adapted excerpt from my thesis focused on research and scholarly commentary regarding the loss of the ability to focus in today’s students.

PDF: Attention – An Ability


By Greg Graham

The other day I searched the word “attention” on TweetDeck and the column started spinning like the wheel of fortune. People are obviously very interested in the subject of attention, and have been for a long time. Attention as an ability has recently become a topic of interest to a great many thinkers, but this interest actually dates back to the beginnings of modernity. One of many breakthroughs in the late 1800’s was the birth of modern psychology. William James, one of the fathers of modern psychology, wrote extensively on the subject of attention. It is no coincidence that with the burgeoning of technological developments, attention became a concern of philosophers and scientists. In his pivotal work The Principles of Psychology, James wrote:

Everyone knows what attention is. It is the taking possession of the mind, in clear and vivid form, of one out of what seem several simultaneously possible objects or trains of thought. Focalisation, concentration, of consciousness are of its essence. It implies a withdrawal from some things in order to deal effectively with others. (qtd in Gallaher 6)

Recent research by neuroscientists has confirmed many of James’ observations; namely, that “attention” is the dispatch hub of the brain, directing traffic, deciding where our mind goes and what it avoids. Neuroscientist Michael Posner refers to attention as an organ system, like the respiratory or circulatory system (Jackson 14). In her recently published book entitled Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life, behavioral science writer Winifred Gallagher suggests that most of us have the nagging feeling that “if you could just stay focused on the right things, your life would stop feeling like a reaction to stuff that happens to you and become something that you create: not a series of accidents, but a work of art” (Gallagher 2). I don’t think many of us need to be convinced of the truthfulness of that statement; we’re well aware of the difficulty we have focusing our attention.

There is great concern today among thinkers in a variety of fields that we are suffering an erosion of attention due to our fast-paced, sensory-loaded, multitasking lives. In a 2007 article published by Johns Hopkins University Press, neurophysiologist Michael Hagner states that “as a direct effect of the omnipresence of the new media, attention has become a central focus of interest.” He continues:

Since the spectrum of visual stimuli and entertainment has become so broad, curiosity, pleasure and admiration are no longer regarded as virtues and passions to be stimulated and satisfied. The problem is rather how to acquire and manage more and more information in shorter and shorter periods of time. In this situation, attention is so precious and expensive, because it cannot be increased at one’s discretion and it is a target for anyone who wants to “sell” goods, ideas, knowledge, or ideology. (Hagner 670)

Indeed, in an information society, attention is our most precious commodity. More and more suppliers of information are utilizing more and more outlets to clamor for our attention. A little over one hundred years ago there was no portal from the outside world into the private home; then along came the telephone. Almost half a century later, that single point of entry into the home became three with radio and television. These three portals were in place for close to another half century until the floodgates were opened. Now no space is private; wherever we are, most of us have multiple media tugging, pinging, flashing, singing at us with the singular intent of getting our attention. That is why authors such as Georg Franck speak of an “economy of attention” and argue for an “ethics of attention” (qtd in Hagner 670).

A failure to focus

Many experts see a diminishing capacity for focused attention. Research supports what many already suspect: all of the distraction is taking a toll, especially on young people. “Nearly a third of fourteen to twenty-one year olds juggle five to eight media while doing homework” (Jackson 18). At the beginning of every semester, I ask my students how many media they use while doing homework, and their answers confirm these findings. Out of a class of twenty-five, usually only one or two still value shutting everything off and focusing completely on their work. Surely it is no coincidence that “U.S. fifteen-year-olds rank twenty-fourth out of twenty-nine developed countries on an Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development test of problem-solving skills related to analytic reasoning” (Jackson 18). Numerous studies indicate a decreasing capability for critical thinking in today’s students. Apparently, the increased access to information and the growing number of tools for manipulating and processing that information is not adding up to smarter students. In fact, the opposite is occurring. Why? Because the best tool we have at our disposal is our own minds and the ability to bring them into sharp focus or deep thought and, unfortunately, those abilities are waning.

A densely woven world

Sharp focus and deep thought are waning because of neglect. With unlimited streams of information coming at us from every direction, urging us to join this group, buy these products, or embrace that cause, most of us are just trying to keep our heads above water. More of everything means less time to concentrate on any one thing. The demographic most affected by this maelstrom is undoubtedly high school and college students. As they enter the classroom, teachers are only one voice among a myriad of voices vying for their attention (including quite prominently the hand-sized device buzzing in their pockets or purses, most likely sitting on the desk beside them).

The tidal wave of available information is difficult to grasp. It is estimated that humanity has produced as much information in the past thirty years as was produced in the previous 5000 years (Eriksen 84). Since the development of the train and telegraph, progress in our culture has been synonymous with making life faster and more efficient. According to that measure, we have made tremendous progress. Yet speed is dangerously addictive. Most of us have little patience with slow service at a restaurant, slow computers (which would have been considered blazing fast five years ago), or slow people. Literally everything is faster, and speed almost always wins. Eriksen summarizes the spirit of our age:

We live in an era when the cigarette has replaced the pipe, cornflakes have replaced porridge, email is replacing paper-based correspondence, and the 2-minute newsreel is one of the hottest products in the media field. The newspaper articles become shorter, the transitions in films more frequent, and the time each of us spends responding to an electronic letter is reduced in proportion to the number of e-letters we receive. The restless and shifting style of communication that was introduced with MTV has become an accurate image of the spirit of the age. (60)

Though Eriksen’s book was published in 2001, much of his commentary seems dated. Such are the times in which we live. One of the great challenges of this project has been locating the most up-to-date data related to new media technologies; the advance is so rapid, data more than a few years old are seriously out-of-date.

While society has benefitted greatly from the explosion of accessible information, a number of new maladies have arisen: acquired attention deficit disorder, information sickness, Internet addiction, continuous partial attention. The list goes on. Experts in the field of psychology are currently debating the placement of Internet addiction disorder (IAD) in the next (2012) edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V).

All of this adds up to a seismic shift in the way we live in the world—especially young people who have never known another life. In his memoir, world renowned sociology professor Johan Galtung had this to say about his students in the 1990’s:

Far too many suffer from chronic image flicker, a synchronic experience of reality as images rich in details, not as lines across time, causal chains, reasoning. One needs both, but the way it is today, the ability to think is slowly killed, to the advantage of the ability to see and hear, taste and feel—an orgy of the senses that gives little space for intellectuality. (qtd in Eriksen 117)

A loss of control over our own time

We experience the problem as a loss of control over our own time. As everything speeds up and fills all the gaps in our lives, critical thinking skills diminish and in-depth reflection goes on life-support. As literary critic Sven Birkerts states:

Inundated by perspectives, by lateral vistas of information that stretch endlessly in every direction, we no longer accept the possibility of assembling a complete picture… We are experiencing in our time a loss of depth—a loss, that is, of the very paradigm of depth. (75)

It would make most of us crazy to be limited to the original automobile’s driving speed of 10 mph. Society enthusiastically applauded as cars became capable of carrying us along at incrementally faster speeds; yet, decades ago we reached a maximum speed that was safe for vehicles and the people in them. Increasing the speed of automobiles became an irrelevant pursuit. Yet in regard to the acceleration of life, which is primarily experienced through our constant interaction with media technologies, we have no speed limit signs, no space limitations, no obvious point at which we will say “Ok, that’s enough.” To take the analogy further, once the human body reaches a certain velocity, it simply explodes. Interestingly, a common metaphor used today when our brains are over-stimulated is “my head is about to explode.”

The Multitaskers

Some will respond that the human brain has an unlimited capacity for speed, unlike the body, and so my analogy fails. But is it true that the human brain functions equally well regardless of the pace or quantity of stimuli to which it is exposed? Common sense says no, and a growing amount of research by neurologists confirms what our mommas already told us—we think best and perform best through focused, undistracted attention. Stanford researchers recently studied the cognitive capabilities of media multitaskers and came to the following conclusion: “People who are regularly bombarded with several streams of electronic information do not pay attention, control their memory or switch form one job to another as well as those who prefer to complete one task at a time” (Gorlick). When comparing the two groups, Stanford researchers sought to discover where media multitaskers are superior. Alas, “we kept looking for what they’re better at, and we didn’t find it” (Gorlick).

Indeed, some neurologists believe that constant use of multiple media technologies is training young people’s brains to process information rather than understand it. While one part of our brain is straining under the weight of overuse, another part is dying from neglect. Walter Kirn writes:

Certain studies indicate that multitasking boosts the level of stress-related hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline and wears down our systems through biochemical friction, prematurely aging us. In the short term, the confusion, fatigue, and chaos merely hamper our ability to focus and analyze, but in the long term, they may cause it to atrophy.

Skimming the surface

It was Marshall McLuhan who first suggested that media don’t simply transport information, but actually shape the way we think. His once cutting-edge speculations are being proven by science, as well as the experience of even those of us who resist many of the changes being thrust upon us. For instance, though obviously a highly literate person, writer Nicolas Carr confesses,

The net seems to be chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation. My mind now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles. Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski. (Carr)

If this is the experience of a fifty-year-old English professor who still relishes prolonged, undistracted reading of a book, how much more so with the students entering our writing classrooms? How difficult will it be for them to grasp what it means to dwell in an idea or engage in what Peter Elbow calls “desert island discourse”?

Carr points to research done by scholars from University College London that suggests reading on the Internet could be changing the way we read and think, perhaps even leading to a new sense of the self. Online reading—whether research or casual reading—encourages a tendency to hop from one source to another, seldom staying at one site for more than a page or two of reading. Carr cites developmental psychologist Maryanne Wolf’s concern that the type of reading promoted by the Net emphasizes “efficiency” and “immediacy” and seems to take away the desire and capability for the deep reading that flourished with the advent of the printing press. We are moving away from the richness of literacy, the complexity of narrative, and becoming “decoders of information” (Carr 2).

As young people are trained to be consumers of information and rarely dive into the grand narratives that have shaped society, they are also moving further away from a desire to hear and tell stories. And the school system is complicit when it treats reading and writing primarily as skills to be mastered rather than a path of private and public exploration. We measure writing competency as we measure body fat, and “the mysteries of language are locked away inside the hearts of sentences” (Sanders 200). Fluency diminishes. Literacy declines. And society becomes less human.


Birkerts, Sven. The Gutenberg Elegies. 1st ed. New York: Faber and Faber, Inc., 1994. Print.

Carr, Nicolas. “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” Atlantic Online July/Aug 2008: 1-7. Web.4 Aug 2008.

Eriksen, Thomas Hylland. Tyranny of the Moment: Fast and Slow Time in the Information Age. 1st ed. Sterling, VA: Pluto Press, 2001. Print.

Gallagher, Winifred. Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life. 1st ed. New York: The Penguin Press, 2009. Print.

Gorlick, Adam. “Media multitaskers pay mental price, Stanford study shows.” Stanford University News. 24 Aug 2009. Stanford University, Web. 5 Nov 2009.

Hagner, Michael. “Toward a History of Attention in Culture and Science.” MLN 118.3(2003): 670-687. Web. 3 May 2009.

Kirn, Walter. “The Autumn of the Multitaskers.” Atlantic Online (2007): 1-11. Web. 19 Nov 2008.

Sanders, Barry. A is for Ox: Violence, Electronic Media, and the Silencing of the Written Word. 1st ed. New York: Pantheon Books, 1994. Print.

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