27 February 2010


In the March-April issue of Utne Reader, there’s a fascinating article by Maggie Jackson entitled “A Nation Distracted.” She speaks of our national obsession with multi-tasking, our lack of focus, and our short attention spans. That stuff isn’t exactly helpful in forming what she calls “the critical thinking skills that are the bedrock of an informed citizenry and the foundation of scientific and other advancements.”

In the field of cognitive neuroscience, studies of attention among young people in particular are raising some red flags. Surprisingly(!), it seems that kids overestimate their ability to multi-task without problems. (And no, it wasn’t so long ago that I was a teenager that I’ve forgotten what it’s like.)

“Children need to learn to respond to the pace of the world, but also to reason and solve problems within this new era, asserts educator Jane Healy in Endangered Minds (Simon & Schuster, 1990). ‘Perhaps most important,’ she writes, ‘they need to learn what it feels like to be in charge of one’s own brain, actively pursuing a mental or physical trail, inhibiting response to the lure of distractions.’” I think that applies to all of us. One good way to regain control is to take a few moments out of the day; take a little time to meditate.

But what a cool phrase: “to be in charge of one’s own brain.” How often do we feel enslaved to the flow of thoughts that surge through our minds like whitewater rapids? I understand that this isn’t a concern of the article, but how often does sleep elude us, due to that stream that prevents slumber? What about ignoring the inner voices that hinder prayer? In my own case, I try to focus on my breathing. (That is, if I remember my own advice to others.)

But of course, this isn’t just about our own inner states. Distraction affects (impairs) us at cultural and political levels. Jackson says, “Lose the will to focus deeply, to point the compass of our lives in one another’s direction, and we become islands.” We become spiritually autistic.

“Attention is not always within our control,” Jackson concedes. “The unexpected, the changeable, the novel, even the habitual abduct our focus, intrude upon our awareness, and pull us off course for a time. Yet used well and nurtured carefully, our networks of attention are our foremost means to shaping our lives. They give us extraordinary ways to master ourselves and our environment, offering growth, connection, and happiness. Accepting a culture of eroding attention relinquishes this potential for sculpting our futures.” (My emphasis.)

Imagine, we don’t have to give in to distraction!

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