As a teacher, I rail against the use of smart phones in the classroom and the effects of technology on students’ engagement and attention. There’s something to check and to distract us at all times – Instagram, Minecraft, Facebook, Gmail, Pinterest, Whatsapp, a new text, a new ‘like’, a new comment, a new i-piece of instant gratification. Students don’t seem to be able to focus anymore unless the information is bite-sized. Reading an entire book is an immense feat. So is sitting through a 50-minute lesson without trying to Instagram your friend on the floor, whom you’ve tied up with your school tie during a group poetry performance activity (this happened in my classroom). But the reality extends beyond the young natives of the digital revolution. When I watch television I also peruse something or other on my iPad. As I write this, I repeatedly check my email. Technology is a pervasive addiction.I’m not alone here. In Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence, widely known psychologist Daniel Goleman writes about a college professor who admitted that he “can’t read more than two pages at a stretch. I get this overwhelming urge to go online and see if I have a new email. I think I’m losing my ability to sustain concentration on anything serious.” More and more, we seem to be in a state of dual concentration, focused on what’s on the screen in front of us and what’s happening in the world around us. The more we do this, the less we’re cognitively able to focus on the latter, whether a book, a project at work, a dinner conversation, or the sights and sounds around us as we walk to the corner store.
Technology addiction depletes “the basics of attention, the cognitive muscle that lets us follow a story, see a task through to the end, learn or create.” In Focus, Goleman discusses three kinds of attention that define how we relate to internal and external forces:
“Inner focus attunes us to our intuitions, guiding values, and better decisions. Other focus smooths our connections to the people in our lives. And outer focus lets us navigate in the larger world. A leader tuned out of his internal world will be rudderless; one blind to the world of others will be clueless; those indifferent to the larger systems within which they operate will be blindsided.
From the social periphery to the mainstream, meditation and mindfulness-based stress reduction practices have, in part, become popular because of a broad need to bolster focus, self-awareness, stress-reduction skills and the ability to be truly present. Aided by indisputable scientific proof, people are flocking to mindfulness courses in order to learn how to eliminate the cacophony of neural chatter and overload that distracts and frazzles.
Goleman writes about these practices but also about a great deal more. What is the science of attention? What internal and external conditions are optimal for peak performance? Are there benefits to the wandering mind? What does it feel like to be truly absorbed, without the distraction of your inner voice? How do others’ perceptions of us affect our self-awareness? What does self-awareness have to do with our ability to focus? How does mindfulness make you more sensitive to social cues? How do motivation and habit, as well as a practice called chunking, lead to remarkable memory improvement?
Goleman is an exceptionally engaging writer. Formerly a journalist, his books are full of anecdotes and interesting real-life examples. While reading Focus, I might be engrossed in a story about a fifth century Indian yogi one minute and the next, be in a New Mexico prison with a sociopathic “muscle bound inmate” without a shred of empathy. Each story is embedded with an idea or illustrates a scientific point or study.
One that caught my attention is the story of Mau Pialug, a native practitioner of the ancient Polynesian art of “wayfinding:” “a refined awareness of navigational systems” that allows the practitioners to canoe between islands as far from each other as Hawaii and Tahiti without any modern navigational system (as Pialug did in 1976). Wayfinders use the stars, the wind and the clouds, birds and ocean swells, and their mental map of where islands are located, learnt from island stories and dances.
This, unsurprisingly, is a dying skill. Navigational technologies mean that we no longer have to connect with natural systems, that we no longer have to hone our attention to and awareness of the world around us. This is a sad reality.