Years ago, I attended a day long workshop on brain development and education. It was a great day, filled with facts and games and clever ideas. One of the things I took away from it had to do with ‘paying attention.’ Young children can only ‘attend’ to one or two things at a time but, as the brain develops, the number of attention centres increase so that a teenager can pay attention or engage with six or even eight things at once.
As we age, this changes again. While the number of things we can pay attention to doesn’t decline, our ability to avoid distraction does. It is one of the reasons why we grow less tolerant of loud music as we age — no matter how big a rocker we were in your youth. The music is too distracting not too loud.
One of the lines (directed at teachers) I remember from that conference was: A child is always paying attention; he is just not paying attention to you. And this aphorism goes a long way toward explaining the modern world.
Paying attention to someone is hard work. We are constantly distracted by stimuli — not the least of which are our own thoughts. Who hasn’t wandered down a path of their own devising while in the middle of a conversation with someone else? We get distracted by a memory or a desire to respond to something that was said and the rest of the time the other person is talking is not spent attending to them but waiting to speak. Add in music or passing traffic, especially attractive human traffic, and the effort to attend becomes almost insurmountable. Don’t even get me started on cell phones and texts and e-mails.
Yet in a way, those technological devices may help us to attend more even as we listen less. Focusing on the constant stream of words coming from a person’s mouth plus all the facial expressions and body language is a tremendously complex problem for our brains to solve. Texting is, by contrast, done on a very narrow bandwidth. No one — no matter how young and dextrous their thumbs might be — can text as fast or as fulsomely as they can talk. The amount of information— let alone nuance— is tiny compared to face-to-face communication. Maybe that’s why we sometimes see teenagers texting to each other over a coffee table (though the desire for private communication may also be a factor). It is quite easy to attend to several text conversations whereas real speech coming at you from three directions might be overwhelming.
The problem is that, like every hard thing— the less seldom you do it, the poorer you become at it. Eventually if we don’t learn to attend to real people in real time, we may find we can’t do it at all. And given the other dangers electronic communication holds — not just privacy concerns but the very real possibility of having our communications manipulated by algorithms, usually driven by the base desire to sell us something, we may come to regret the loss.
But that’s ten minutes.