A man looking at his smartphone. Image Credit: Agency

New York: Researchers have known for years that there’s a difference between “top-down” attention (the voluntary, effortful decisions we make to pay attention to something of our choice) and “bottom-up” attention, which is when our attention is involuntarily captured by whatever is going on around us: A thunderclap, car horn or merely the inviting bleep that announces another Twitter notification.

But what about the attention that we voluntarily sacrifice to stay with technological stimuli?

What are the consequences of all that screen time on our bedraggled neurons? “We don’t understand how modern technology impacts our ability to sustain our attention on our goals,” Jesse Rissman, a neuroscientist, University of California, said.

Mourning loss of attention

There are many who are mourning for the passing of attention. From friends, parents, colleagues to college professors.

Katherine Hayles, an English professor at University of California Los Angeles (UCLA), has written about the change she sees in students as one from “deep attention”, a state of single-minded absorption that can last for hours, to one of “hyper attention”, which jumps from target to target, preferring to skim the surface of lots of different things than to probe the depths of just one.

At Columbia University, where every student is required to pass a core curriculum with an average of 200 to 300 pages of reading each week, professors have been discussing how to deal with the conspicuous change in students’ ability to get through their assignments.

The curriculum has more or less stayed in place, but attention spans have been shrinking over the decades. “We’re constantly thinking about how we’re teaching when attention spans have changed since 50 years ago,” said Lisa Hollibaugh, a dean of academic planning at Columbia.

People glued to their smartphones. Image Credit: Agency

Cultural perspective

At Tufts University, Nick Seaver, 32, an Anthropology professor, just finished his second year of teaching a class he designed called ‘How to Pay Attention’. But rather than offering tips for focusing, as one might expect, he set out to train his students to look at attention as a cultural phenomenon — “the way people talk about attention”, Seaver said, with topics such as the “attention economy” or “attention and politics”.

“Information overload is something that always feels very new, but is actually very old,” he said. “Like: ‘It is the 16th century, and there are so many books’. Or: ‘It is late antiquity and there is so much writing’.

“It can’t be that there are too many things to pay attention to: That doesn’t follow,” he added. “But it could be that there are more things that are trying to actively demand your attention.”

Children vying with parents’ gadgets for attention

There is not only the attention we pay to things, there is also the attention we receive.

Sherry Turkle, a Sociologist and Psychologist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has been writing about our relationship with our technology for decades. Devices that come with us everywhere we go, she argues, introduce a brand-new dynamic: Children competing not with their siblings for parental attention — as it once used to be — but with their parents’ iPhones and iPads, Siri and Alexa, Apple watches and computer screens.

It is the first generation to be so affected — 14 to 21 years old — that Turkle describes in her most recent book, Reclaiming Conversation.

And yet Turkle is cautiously optimistic.

“We’re starting to see people inching their way towards ‘time well spent’, Apple inching its way towards a mea culpa,” she said. “And the culture itself turning towards a recognition that this can’t go on.”

— New York Times News Service