Is paying attention something that should be taught? Professor Barry Schwartz of Swarthmore College argues that it is; without this skill, society will lack the ability to take on the difficult problems it faces. Inequality, climate change and health care are examples of complex issues for which Professor Schwartz says we will need complex solutions. He determines our present state as characterized by an inability to distinguish between short and simplified arguments—such as the one he is presenting—with longer and more complex analyses. There is a wide range of diverse opinions on the topic of attention spans and its relation to modern usages such as the internet. Nicholas Carr has warned that the internet is rewiring our brains to make us less able to concentrate. On the other hand, Jonah Lehrer has argued that the internet is beneficial for the development of certain motor skills such as hand-eye coordination.

Professor Schwartz is especially critical of the ways we cater to shorter attention spans. He cites examples of this such as teachers assigning resources that include short videos as well as online news reports and blogs that seldom exceed 500 words. The problem, he says, is a self-fulfilling prophecy. We do not expect people to pay attention; therefore, we do not press them to, and we “discover” that they cannot pay attention.

The villains Professor Schwartz finds include the news and social media, magazines and political advisers, and no doubt this list includes many facets of modern life. Mostly, he sees it in his students, whom he diagnoses as having “diminished attention.” He calls Millennials the “short attention span generation” and is anxious to prescribe more exercising of “the attention muscle.” As with the process of strengthening biceps, which involves working toward lifting progressively heavier weights, it is important to gradually increase the weight of our mental lifting. One study by Lloyds TSB Insurance confirms the professor’s view of the Millennial generation: it found that our attention spans have shortened from twelve to five minutes over the past ten years. People over 50 paid attention significantly longer than younger generations. Another study by a UCLA professor showed that neural activity is completely rewired after only a few days of regular internet use.

Schwartz also gives examples of how educators are working to improve the problem of diminished attention. At some schools, first graders are taught to “SLANT”: Sit up, Look and listen to the speaker, Ask questions, Nod and Track the teacher. He argues that this is important to teach, since not everyone comes to class equipped with the same attention-paying skills. Another study Schwartz cites shows “grit” (measured as “the tendency to sustain interest in and effort toward very long-term goals”) as a more accurate predictor of academic success when compared to SAT or IQ scores. This is interesting because it suggests that mental endurance, which Professor Schwartz says requires the ability to pay attention, is a key to success.

The debate is still open as to whether Millennials are benefitting or losing its ability to concentrate from using the internet and other forms of technology, a debate that will surely carry on into the future.

Did You Know?
While the debate over the internet’s effect on our minds and ways of life will surely go unanswered for a long time (if not indefinitely), the discussion is very enticing. Nicholas Carr’s approach to the topic focuses on the web enabling thought interruption and the inability to engage. In his book The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, Carr discusses the possible ways technology has altered various processes in our lives, a topic brought on by his own concern over his lack of concentration and deep analysis. The titular Shallows refers to the “sea of words” in which Carr claims he had once been “a scuba diver” but now feels he can only “zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski.” If the internet is supposed to be a space to host and encourage the boundless exchange of language and thought, then why, based on discussions and the existence of viral media, does it seem we are all reading/viewing/consuming the same material?

Carr goes into several different realms that the internet’s accessibility has influenced, and many others have ventured to do the same. Perhaps the importance lies in the discussion itself: the mere fact that it exists demonstrates that people have not lost the ability or the interest to seek the answer to the omnipresent why.