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!


 Click on people's faces in the photo to tag them. 


Thanks for responding to this

Thanks for responding to this most recent link in the chain of horribly frustrating articles that treats attention as a binary ("focused" or "distracted") and ADHD as an acquired malady.*

A key point for me whenever I get boiled in these discussions is that the issue is really attention regulation, as you touch on in the paragraph about addiction. Though I should point out that the gamer still has ADHD for videogames -- it's just that he hyperfocuses, rather than underfocuses.

I can't help thinking that the only thing accomplished by articles like this (the NYT original) is increased stigmatization of kids who have probably already spent much of their lives struggling with concepts of themselves as "lazy" and "unmotivated" when the underlying problem isn't something subject to will power. And what educational goal is served by skewering self esteem and fostering imposter syndrome?





* Traumatic brain injury can lead to permanent brain dysfunction that looks like ADHD, and anxiety and depression often have ADHD-like symptoms. But neither of these is actually ADHD.

Cathy Davidson

Grumblesocks Indeed

Hi, Rachel, Yes, I agree very much, although I don't even thinkg "hyperfocus" and "underfocus" are terms that make sense physiologically.   Both are so conditional and vague.   They return us back to your smart point about regulation:  hyperfocus really means you don't need to be regulated by whoever has the authority/responsibility to regulate you wherease underfocus is the opposite.  (And, yes, sometimes that authority/responsibility doesn't belong to a boss, teacher, or parent--but to oneself:  Freud would call that guilt.)


My beloved brother has severe brain damage and I know a lot about ADHD, OCD, and addiction through his brilliant self-analysis (he is both brain damaged and brilliant), through conversations with many of my colleagues in the Center for Cogntiive Neuroscience that I helped set up here when I was a Vice Provost, both about my brother's case and in unrelated ways.   We know a lot, but we think we know a lot more than we actually do--and in that gap is where the punitive, finger-pointing, blaming, techno-determinism comes in. 


btw, sometime, I would love to work with you on a project.  We'll be in touch.  You are a brilliant illustrator.   That is a gift, an ability to organize complexity in visually compelling ways that we'd love to highlight sometime if you are at all interested.  "We" is HASTAC Central.   Including our involvement in 4Humanities, an advocacy group dedicated to putting technological tools, theory, and intelligence ideas founded in the humanities to work on behalf of a "beyond two cultures" approach to contemporary education.   I've been asked if I know a good illustrator/animator/cartoonist and I recommended you.




Mumblestockings (Grumblesocks -1)

"hyperfocus really means you don't need to be regulated by whoever has the authority/responsibility to regulate you"

Actually, with hyperfocus, you still need help with regulation -- whether from an authority figure, or an independent coping mechanism like a timer -- it's just in the opposite direction. As an example, I was accidentally up until 2 am last night tweaking my blog post. So I don't find them to be conditional or vague: one is the inability to _engage_ your attention without some kind of external stimulus; the other is the inability to _disengage_ your attention without some kind of external stimulus.  


"Freud would call that guilt."

Ah yes, the ultimate motivator -- both of productivity and avoidance. :P


"We know a lot, but we think we know a lot more than we actually do--and in that gap is where the punitive, finger-pointing, blaming, techno-determinism comes in."

Indeed.. stigma and blame almost always sprout from ignorance. And ignorance is never so fertile as when it's masked as knowledge.  


"btw, sometime, I would love to work with you on a project.  We'll be in touch. You are a brilliant illustrator."

Oh gosh, thanks! And I'd love to collaborate on something. My free time-o-meter refills on Dec. 20, but I'll have scattered moments between then and now. 



I didn't find the article nearly as stigmatizing and retrograde as I do the knee-jerk Don't Tread on Me reactions of everyone I've seen respond--most of which amount to foolish technolibertarian celebrations of the anonymous savior Technology (Cathy, you don't do that there, even if you also have nothing good to say about the NYT piece).If anything, the article showed that these kids (like all of us!) are profoundly distressed by today's media ecology. They seem to have a far more subtle perspective on things than most others. Frankly I'm a bit gobstopped that everyone hates this article so much.

As for the old chestnut that "we need new education for the information age," it's worth pointing out that there was no formal, standardized education system before the industrial age. Compulsory education is a century old experiment. And yes, it ought to be discarded. But that's a frightening prospect for almost everyone, including those who advocate for it. I wonder how many of the intelligentsia who raise their fists and cry, "We need a different education system!" still partake of the old system for their own kids. We don't in my house, for what it's worth, and it's a huge pain in the ass.


Oh sure, bring your voice of reason, why doncha?!

"If anything, the article showed that these kids (like all of us!) are profoundly distressed by today's media ecology."

True enough. I should always preface my responses to this sort of thing with the admission that I am _way_ too emotionally invested in the topic to read or respond to it objectively.


"I wonder how many of the intelligentsia who raise their fists and cry, "We need a different education system!" still partake of the old system for their own kids."

It would definitely be interesting to read more about what methods the 'rebels' _do_  use with their kids. I really enjoyed Steven Novella's A Parent’s Approach to Science Education.


Cathy Davidson

The comments in the NYT are actually very postive

Actually, the comments on the NYT piece are mostly pretty positive.  I am absolutely not a technophiliiac and want us to understand more about technology to give us some chance of getting a handle on it, not to use it all.   And my argument exactly is that we've been developing a system of education for 150 years, nothing existed before, and, unfortunately, some of the foundational premises of that educational system are things that aren't very useful now (really? NCLB item-response testing in which a whole school can be privatized because kids don't do well on those tests?  In Durham, that might mean a school with 25% kids newly arrived in the U.S. and who don't speak English at home gets shut down because the tests are in English).  I don't think we will tear it all down overnight.  It took 150 years to develop this and we're only 15 years into the Internet commercialization that has re-merged many of the separations that the industrial age trained us to believe were "natural."   I don't think change will be easy.   But I think adjustment is really, really hard because we are training kids for the world we don't even live in any more!   It's hard for us because we're working against all our old patterns.   We're like training kids how to skateboard by swinging in a tire swing.  There may be some carry over (in courage, balance, and so forth) but it's not clear or exact and so we're all left--parents and teachers and kids most of all--frayed at the edges. 


I have no problem with the description in the NY Times article, and there is much I admire about it.  But I find problems whenever the criticism of attention issues in kids starts to feel punitive or when the diagnosis of the problem is wrong as neurophysiology and as history.  NB:  I actually feel this author is less susceptible to that than almost anyone I've read on this side of the case.   Maybe we're finally beyond the punditry and there's a turn toward all wanting a solution.  Do we need some good ones?  Yes?  Is there an issue with digital overload?  Most definitely!   My critique of the article is to help get us to a place where we can start seeing what those issues are for all of us and make interventions.  We all, already, have our ways of controlling our digital lives.  All my students and all the kids I've been interviewing have different ways of entering and refusing to enter into the digital age (mostly by ignoring the worst offender: email, as big a hodgepodge of old and new as one could dream up, in my opinion; we'll see if AOL or Facebook, heaven help us, really can start to straighten out this amalgam of old ways and new that stresses everyone's attention).  


The folks you and I hang out with may not have liked the NYT piece . . . but most adults out there in the world read it, like it, and then feel the impotence of catastrophe rather than a sense a la Neil Postman, of all people, that we need to give students an education in "the history, social effects and psychological biases of technology, so they may become adults who use technology rather than being used by it."   Ah, there's the goal for all of us.


It's a beautiful day today and I'm about to go off line to enjoy it.   Thanks, as always, for writing, Ian.  No one says institutional transformation is easy.   I'm just saying it's necessary and also, fifteen years into the commercialization of the Internet, now is the right time.  Especially since we're all so frustrated by this transitional moment which doesn't do us much good either as nostalgia or as futurism.  That's actually the exact right place for change to begin to happen.


Apparently, NYT Magazine has an opposing viewpoint up.

Pointed out to on the Twitters by Daniel Greene.

The Attention-Span Myth by Virginia Heffernan (11/19)


hours spent

Cathy -- I really appreciate the distinctions you make between the "the biology of attention" and "the sociology of change." And I agree that more complex and nuanced conversations about technology's relationship to attention, diverstion, focus, and immersion will be more productive (than either nostalgia or utopic futurism). For example, it seems like a strange oversight (in the NYT piece) to bemoan the ability of "kids these days" to focus, read immersively, or Pay Attention, yet report without comment that these same kids can edit video for hours on end -- creative, immersive work which, I would imagine, requires more than a little focus. It seems that perhaps the question is not whether we can still pay attention or focus, but what those diverse forms of immersion within different media (will) look like.


nice. thank you

nice. thank you Cathy.

wondering if you've seen Conrad Wolfram's or Don Tapscott's latest. i caught both just this week. resonate well with the change we are seeking.

Cathy Davidson

Wolfram and Tapscott

Yes, I like the Wolfram and Tapscott a lot.  And on those lines, over on Facebook, a brilliant HASTAC Scholar has written about how, one semester, he was trying to fathom a particularly difficult cryptography class and suddenly everything in math class was a piece of the puzzle.   As he writes in the poetic, concise pointed way he has:  I've always 'paid attention' in math classes, but I don't think I've ever had so much attention to pay."    That really couldn't be more perfect. 


I responded to his comment like this:  "When I was writing novels, all of life felt like that, where nothing I saw, felt, heard, smelled, touched, read, thought seemed insignificant since it was all part of the giant puzzle of how to create vivid story on a two-dimensional piece of paper. That's not always a good thing but I've never, to paraphrase, had so much attention to pay.  Great artists must live in that hyper-attentive world a lot of the time.   It is what great teaching aspires to. 


i love fractals... they have

i love fractals... they have helped my brain zoom in and out (getpivot.com style) to see similarities. i can't imagine ever being bored - always looking for connections - in unlikely places.  but i'm sure to others - i often seem like i'm off task. i guess maybe i am at times.. off their task. but what you say really resonates.. i feel like i'm swimming in life. connections are everywhere.. i want everyone to feel that.




You really can do/learn

You really can do/learn whatever you want.
I spent 2 hours with an incredible homeless man last night. This paradigm shift… it’s going to blow us away. Who’s not homeless? (via kids – we don’t say houseless… it’s not so much about a shelter as it is about belonging.) We can’t not. We don’t need more resources.. we just need to be more resourceful… to share more. The guy in charge - says he's seen more potential einstein's within the homeless system than anywhere - percentage wise. What happens if we don't realize what paying attention really is...
What an incredible time we are living in. What a great opportunity for meshing ed. Let’s notice, dream, connect and do… in whatever flavor you choose.
Bravo Cathy. i love what you're doing.

mark deuze

the media self

great reply to the NYTimes article, Cathy.

an especially fascinating line:

"80% of the brain's activity is consumed not paying attention to the world but in communicating with itself."

beyond your own book (which I will pre-order immediately), do you have some good references for this number?

because i'd argue that today's media ecology the self is uniquely conditioned to communicate with itself. Castells describes our immersion in digital media as "mass self-communication", but doesnt take his analysis far enough - I'd argue that we have a tremendous opportunity to truly communicate with ourselves, not just internally, but also externally - we can see ourselves live.

that would perhaps open up pedagogical opportunities as well...



Cathy Davidson

meetings all day will get it to you later

Hi, Mark, I'm in meetings all day but will get you the citations later.   On the fly, thanks for writing . . .    I think all new technologies allow us to take advantage of different capacities in different ways.   "Mass self communication" is a fabulous term.   More anon

Cathy Davidson

Brain energy biblio (some very interesting papers)

See, for example, the excellent work by Debra A. Gusnard and Marcus E. Raichle, “Searching for a Baseline: Functional Imaging and the Resting Human Brain,” Nature Reviews Neuroscience 2, no. 10 (2001): 685–94.


See also, Harold Burton, Abraham Z. Snyder, and Marcus E. Raichle, “Default Brain Functionality in Blind People,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA 101, no. 43 (2004): 15500–505. This article looks at default functionality of the human brain, as revealed by “task-independent decreases in activity occurring during goal-directed behaviors” and the way such activity is functionally reorganized by blindness.


See also: Marcus E. Raichle, “The Neural Correlates of Consciousness: An Analysis of Cognitive Skill Learning,” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 1377 (1998): 1889–1901, which uses fMRIs to isolate neural correlates of consciousness in the human brain. Raichle tests neural activity during skill mastery.


For a summary of the latest work in this area, see Marcus E. Raichle, “The Brain’s Dark Energy,” Scientific American, Mar. 2010, pp. 44–47.


i'm with you Mark... have you

i'm with you Mark... have you read What Tech Wants by Kevin Kelly? i'm thinking that's exactly where he is heading.. the overload is actually a pruning to finding ourselves..