Why Doesn't Anyone Pay Attention Anymore?
This is a response to yet another article about why kids today don't pay attention. Matt Richtel, in the November 21, 2010, New York Times, has written a long piece, with lots of anecdotal evidence and a smattering of neuroscience thrown in, called "Growing Up Digital, Wired for Distraction." You can read it here: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/11/21/technology/21brain.html?ref=your_brain...
There are many interesting insights and observations throughout this piece, and I feel his sincere desire to be as constructive as possible about the digital overload that many kids today (not to mention their parents) are feeling. There is a tone that I like in this piece, one of empathy and even tenderness, that puts it beyond the finger-pointing and nagging in so much punditry on how "the Internet makes us dumber." But I am more than ready for a paradigm shift. We are caught in the "overload" and "distracted" paradigm and we need to understand the brain science of attention better in order to come up with some sensible ways of making changes that can help us all.
Like so many articles about what is happening to youth today, this one blurs the distinctions between "distraction" and "attention"--and throws around terms like "addiction" as if they were self-evident. Richtel focuses on a young teen named Vishal who cannot pay attention to his homework because he's too addicted by video games. The article suggests he has lost the ability to "pay attention," that he is always distracted. That diagnosis of distraction contradicts the physiology of addiction. Addiction, of course, is the most focused form of attention. That is one problem with the way the question of attention is currently framed in so much of the popular press; it blurs different conditions by simply thinking of them all as "bad." That is not helpful. Attention Deficit Disorder, for example, means you have trouble paying attention to some things and not others. The gamer who can't pay attention in school has ADD for school . . . but not for video games. Until we get the physiology straightened out, we won't be able to help kids who truly need help-- or we'll assume they all need help (when they do not).
We also need to distinguish what scientists know about human neurophysiology from our all-too-human discomfort with cultural and social change. I've been an English professor for over twenty years and have heard how students don't pay attention, can't read a long novel anymore, and are in decline against some unspecified norm of an idealized past quite literally every year that I have been in this profession. In fact, how we educators should address this dire problem was the focus of the very first faculty meeting I ever attended.
Whenever the conversation comes up, whether in its new digital guise or in older forms, I remember an illuminating experience from my own student days. I had just switched into English as a major from math and philosophy (AI). The teacher had assigned Moby Dick so I read it, in the same way I'd turn up with the math problems finished if that was the subject of the day's assignment in math. The English teacher give us a pop quiz on Moby Dick. The professor picked up our one-question quizzes, looked them over, and then pronounced that, out of 50 students in the survey of American literature class, I was the only one who had answered correctly and therefore the only one who had read the assignment and not the Cliff Notes (for those too young to know, Cliff Notes are paperback "crib sheets" designed to allow students to avoid reading the classics assigned in liberal arts classes). The prof then joked, "I can tell you are a new English major. You'll learn how not to read soon enough." Whenever I hear about attentional issues in debased contemporary society, whether blamed on television, VCR's, rock music, or the desktop, I assume that the critic was probably, like me, the one student who actually read Moby Dick and who had little awareness that no one else did.
The point is we measure our kids' deficits by our glowing and often inflated idea of how much better "we" (our entire generation, of course) were. This is not really a discussion about the biology of attention; it is about the sociology of change.
Neurologically, attention has no "off" switch. All the best new work on the brain (think about Morcom and Fletcher or Raichle's work) shows that the "still" and "quiet" brain is constantly distracting itself. Buddhist monks know this best, or they wouldn't spend a lifetime "practicing" meditation. In that still, quiet place alone, the brain is more obviously distracted than anywhere else. 80% of the brain's activity is consumed not paying attention to the world but in communicating with itself.
Do kids pay attention differently now? No. Because they didn't learn any other way of paying attention. Do they pay attention differently than their parents did? Probably. And their parents paid attention differently than theirs. The brain is always changed by what it does. That's how we learn, from infancy on, and that's how a baby born in New York has different cultural patterns of behavior, language, gesture, interaction, socialization, and attention than a baby born the same day in Beijing. That's as true for the historical moment into which we are born as it is for the geographical location. Our attention is shaped by all we do, and reshaped by all we do. That is what learning is. The best we can do as educators is find ways to improve our institutions of learning to help our kids be prepared for their future--not for our past.
Virtually all of our current institutions of learning have evolved to prepare youth for an industrial age model of work, the assembly line or the office cubicle: sit still, don't move, come on time, do this subject then that one in order to pass this end-of-grade item-response test. Who wouldn't find video games more stimulating than a typical school day--and more relevant to the challenges and obstacles ahead? The problem is not in the students. It is in the mismatch between the way they are being taught and what they need to learn.
We're only fifteen years into the Information Age. It took 150 years to build the educational institutions for the Industrial Age. It is a challenge to rethink education from the ground up, but we need to. And now, in this transitional and precarious moment, is the optimum time to begin. For the sake of our children, it is time to stop complaining and looking backwards; we have to start thinking about the best ways we can help our children succeed in a future they have inherited and will help to shape.
And, yes, I've written a book on this topic, and it will be in bookstores this summer, published by Viking Press: Now You See It: How the Brain Science of Attention Will Transform the Way We Live, Work, and Learn. Stay tuned!