Attention-span theater

The Sunday edition of the New York Times carried a big, above-the-fold report by Matt Richtel exploring the challenges faced by students, parents, and educators coming to grips with changing expectations for teaching and learning in the digital age.

Students have always faced distractions and time-wasters. But computers and cellphones, and the constant stream of stimuli they offer, pose a profound new challenge to focusing and learning.

Researchers say the lure of these technologies, while it affects adults too, is particularly powerful for young people. The risk, they say, is that developing brains can become more easily habituated than adult brains to constantly switching tasks — and less able to sustain attention.

It’s the same worry that animates Nicholas Carr’s most recent book, The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains. Carr’s argument is well known by now: where the book inculcated an ethics of attention, the implicit “intellectual ethic” of the age of networked information is a channel-switching, perpetually-distracted state that rewires our brains and erodes our attention spans.

Elsewhere in the Times (in the Sunday magazine, to be precise in her column “The Medium”), Virginia Heffernan questions whether there is such thing as an attention span at all. The attention span, she says, is the “digital-age equivalent of souls,” noting that the concept is vague, slippery, and conveniently elusive. Is “an attention span … a freestanding entity,” Heffernan wonders, “like a boxer’s reach, existing independently of any newspaper or chess game that might engage or repel it?”

She goes on to note that in the nineteenth century, distraction could indicated an abundance curiosity and good cheer, while fixedness of focus signaled morbidity or despair. The emergence of the attention span, Heffernan points out, maps rather disquietingly well upon the twentieth century’s growing expectation for individual discipline, the kind of domesticated mien most useful in the factory and the office:

At some point, we stopped calling Tom Sawyer-style distractibility either animal spirits or a discipline problem. We started to call it sick, even after an early twin study showed that a relatively short attention span is virtually synonymous with standard-issue irritability and distemper. But the fact that the attention-span theory makes news of what was once considered ordinary or artistic behavior is not what’s wrong with it. These cultural transitions — disruptive as they are — happen all the time as society’s demands on individuals change.

A quick bout of word-mining in Google Books suggests that the concept of the attention span has proved troublesome and hard to pin down from the start. Very few nineteenth-century citations for the term can be found. When the term becomes common in the first three decades of the twentieth century, it crops up exclusively in the burgeoning psychological literature—where it is tied to the increasing use of sophisticated electrical instruments devised to measure aspects of behavior and cognition with greater accuracy than possible theretofore. The attention span, in other words, seems an artifact of psychology’s turn towards instrumentation and measurement.

But researchers had a hard time settling on a fixed definition of what was meant by “attention span”: is it the length of time the eye rests on a word or image? The number of stimuli that can be separately sensed and responded to at any given moment? Is it a quality of learning, of cognition, or of manual dexterity? Beyond individual variation, does some base unit of attention span exist? Can it be taught and improved, or is it set in cognitive stone? The importance of the concept of “attention span” was generally recognized, but its qualities prove elusive.

In “Some Aspects of the Attention Problem,” a 1909 survey article in The Pedagogical Seminary, H. W. Chase found the concept of attention span so complex and changeable as to be nearly worthless.

Improvement of the attention itself must be carefully distinguished from change in the objects with which attention deals…. The real question is rather—can education cause a change in the individual in the degree of clearness with which ideas are apprehended, in the rapidity of the adaptation of the attention to ideas remote from the previous current of thought, and in the length of time for which a series of ideas can, under the most favorable conditions, be kept before consciousness.

In view of the exceedingly fundamental nature of attention, of the intimacy with which it is bound up with all the operations of consciousness, and of the closeness with which it must depend on the fundamental properties of the nervous substrate, it would seem almost justifiable to answer the question of improvement in the negative. What has been really changed to enable us to give, as we say, closer attention, is the number of associations which keep different aspects of the same material longer before the mind. It is the binding together of more and more attentive links through association into what seems to us a unitary attentive act.

Could it be found? Could it be measured? Could it be trained—or eroded? Examining the theories of attention span in his own time, Chase found a jumble. And we still have a jumble. “The binding together of more attentive links”: a definition as useful today as it was a hundred years ago—and no less precise than anything we’re presented with today. What has changed, perhaps, is the material to which we direct our attention. On that score, there’s no turning back. The question is, what links shall we bind together?

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