Growing Attention in an Age of Distraction

In last week’s post, I discussed a new cognitive condition called digital dementia which is affecting teens and young adults.  This condition is defined as the deterioration of brain function as a result of the overuse of digital technology, which over-develops their left-brains, leaving the right brains underdeveloped. The most common symptoms of digital dementia include memory problems, shortened attention spans and emotional flattening. 

The issue of shortened attention spans is of grave concern to medical professionals and neuroscientists, as well as to educators who are experiencing this decline in classrooms from kindergarten through college.

 First, let’s consider what attention is and why is it important?

The word attention comes from the Latin words ad and tendere, meaning to intentionally stretch towards.  The phrase attention span literally refers to a kind of bridge:

  • Attention is thus a bridge – the connection or pathway –  that grows between you and knowledge.  It’s the key to learning and remembering.  The ability to pay attention is essential in order to finish a project; to persevere through tedious tasks; to read with comprehension; to write with clarity.
  • Attention is also the pathway to gaining higher-level executive functions such as problem solving, creativity and self-control.
  • It is the connection between you and others; essential in order to form deep, abiding relationships; to listen, to empathize, to understand another, even to gaze into a baby’s eyes all require attention.
  • Most importantly, attention is the key to intimacy with God.  Consider the following statement by Caldecott Stratford in Beauty in the Word:

School studies have a higher purpose than the acquisition of information or worldly skills.  These acquisitions will follow, but they are subordinate to the orienting of the soul to God, implicit in the act of attention.

Caldecott Stratford’s description of attention is very thought provoking:

Attention is desire; It is the desire for light, for truth, for understanding, for possession.  As the intelligence grows, joy is experienced and the anticipation of joy is what arouses the effort of attention; It is what makes students of us.  Making known to the child or student the special way of waiting on truth in every problem, whether in language or mathematics or any other subject, is the first duty of a teacher.  For this makes it an exercise in waiting on God.

Only recently is it understood that the network of attention can be shaped, trained and strengthened.

The brain is actually extraordinarily plastic in nature and much can be done to strengthen it.  The brain’s plasticity also means it can be adversely affected. According to Dr. Jordan Grafman, chief of Cognitive Neuroscience at the National Institute of Neurological Disorders said that” technology in general can be good for children’s cognitive development if used judiciously.  But if it is used in a non-judicious fashion, it will shape the brain in what I think will actually be a negative way.”

HOWEVER, when students begin to experience the actual joy that is implicit in attending – pleasure in their growing ability to learn and understand, to think creatively and problem solve, to form close relationships with others, to commune with God – they grow satisfied within and not as easily distracted by the world.

Next week’s post is about practical tips that parents can do to encourage the growth of attention.  In the meantime consider reading the following articles. Let’s make growing attention, (not only for our kids but for us as well), a priority in this distracted age!  Please send me your thoughts about these articles as well as ideas for next week’s post!

Attention is fast becoming the rarest of commodities. 

Technology is changing how students learn. 

Growing up digital.

Pointers to help your child pay attention.

Also, you can find all these articles and more on my pinterest board “Technology and Kids.”

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