The Evolution of Attention

I had an interesting discussion with some of my colleagues this evening about how they, and the people they know, pay attention, and divide their attention, and how this appears to be changing from generation to generation.

Some of their observations were not new: We are all splitting our attention more finely than we used to. Younger generations are learning to do this even more finely than ours has, the phenomenon called continuous partial attention, though there seems to be some consensus that this dividing of attention is more a rapid sequential process than a simultaneous one. We seem to become bored more easily if there is insufficient stimulus to demand our constant, full attention, and start to browse the room (physical or virtual), consciously or subconsciously, for more stimulus when our minds and/or emotions are not fully engaged.

Some of their observations were, I thought, novel and provocative: Partly because we’re always fighting for attention, perhaps, the nature of spoken and real-time written (IM) communication seems to have evolved from relatively slow, thoughtful, considered communication to more rapid-fire, stream-of-consciousness, iterative, successive-approximation communication. Efficiency and economy are sacrificed for effectiveness. Whereas I think I understood what you used to say, the first time you said it, today I know what you’re saying, because after ten clarifications and restatements there can no longer be any doubt. And maybe it takes longer today for that greater certainty, in the spaces between the clarifications and restatements I also understood what six other people told me on other subjects, interwoven with my conversation with you. If you were the only person I was conversing with at the time, I might well have become impatient with you. But increasingly, we constantly juggle and interleaf multiple conversations.

What is lost in this splitting of attention? When we pay attention to more and more things in rapid succession, we must inevitably stop paying attention to something else. I suspect that successive-approximation communication interferes with our ability to fully listen — there just isn’t time, enough mental cycles for us to do so. We are therefore, I’d suggest, missing nuances in the conversation — the meaning that is contained in silences, hesitation, inflection, tone, and the semi-subconscious awareness of what is implied by the choice of one word over another, by phraseology, by the connotation and implication and what might have provoked a statement, not just its denotation.

Even more, because we are scanning words while we’re listening, we’re missing the important visual clues that accompany a message in face-to-face or videoconferenced conversation: facial expression, body language, and what we can ‘read’ in the eyes of the person we are talking to. In fact, I suspect that some of the discomfort I see in young people engaged in one-on-one, face-to-face conversation is because they’re just not experienced or practiced in such conversation, and find its intimacy alarming and disorienting. At age 55, when I’m speaking with a woman who is looking at me intently as we talk, for example, I don’t think I am likely to misconstrue her attention (e.g. as coming on to me, staring at me because of something peculiar about my appearance, or angry at me). I’ve learned to interpret these signals in context, from practice. I’m not sure many young people who practice rapid sequential language processing have that acuity, and I’m a little concerned that, for lack of practice and attention, they may never develop it. And if so, that’s a shame, not only because some important communication need not or cannot be verbal*, but because I think the intimacy of non-verbal communication is important for our emotional well-being.

But maybe I’m just getting old and nostalgic. Have you noticed any of this in your own conversations? In what other ways are the ways we communicate, and theways we pay attention, evolving, for better or for worse?

*Verbal means oral or written, i.e. using language. This word is often misused to mean just oral, spoken.

Painting “In Deep Conversation” by Irish artist Pam O’Connell

This entry was posted in Our Culture / Ourselves. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to The Evolution of Attention

  1. Dave,,, this is an important post. When we consider the deep thoughtfulness that occurred in Scotland (for example) in the 18th Century, was that really people deeply thinking all the time, or were the tea shop conversations lighter fuel for the results that we saw. I genuinely wonder about this, and whether we actually are seeing a new thing or just a different (albeit faster) manifestation.

  2. Jon Husband says:

    I think that an aid to splitting our attention is that we (often unknowingly) have become more selfish, more oriented towards “what’s in it for me ?” … abetted by the thirty second pitch about what one does, the Brand You thing combined with the obsessive and relentless focus on money. Not good combinations, in my opinion.

  3. Dave, in addition to this post, Colin and Jon make good points too. As I get older I’m finding that my reflexes aren’t what they used to be (so I drive more carefully), I can’t keep everything in my mind (so I make lists), and I often need to let ideas take their own sweet time before I can make sense of them. It takes practice to concentrate on something for extended periods. I wonder if we’re losing an ability that we need to live well?

  4. Brutus says:

    You mention efficiency but don’t follow up on it. My sense is that the rapid serial processing you describe (as opposed to parallel processing) stems from an internalized desire to maximize one’s limited awareness, something I’ve heard called the bandwidth of consciousness, making it more effecient and therefore productive. Conversations thus become transactional, meaning that they can’t be enjoyed for their own sake; they’re tools for gathering and sharing information that must then be used somehow. Even when we absorb information through entertainment, there is a subtle imperative toward efficiency, as though a 90 min. movie is inherently superior to a 120 min. movie (or a 200 pp. book vs. a 450 pp. book). What it amounts to, which you note, is that in the process of making our communications styles more utile, we’re basically skimming and scanning rather than truly hearing, listening, and understanding.

Comments are closed.