Is Our Attention Fractured?

How much is too much?

In many ways, we live in a golden age of media content. Thanks to education, more people know more about more topics than ever before. And thanks to the Internet, production and distribution are cheaper and easier than ever.

It would take you a lifetime to watch all the shows and movies on Netflix. Would you like to listen to a podcast on cryptozoology? You have your choice between dozens. You can get lost at your local library, in e-books or the old-fashioned print kind.

No generation in history has had access to so much. To put it another way, there have never been so many demands on our attention as there are now.

What does that mean for us?

There’s no reason to ever have an unproductive moment. Do you have a spare moment waiting in the grocery checkout line? You can scroll through social media. Riding the bus to work? Read an article from that niche magazine you like. Zoning out while on the treadmill at the gym? Listen to a workout mix from a streaming music service.

All this content means we can consume more. In theory, that means we are exposed to more, and more diverse, stories. But do we need time to actually be able to process this information? Rather than just going on to the next book, the next podcast, the next article, the next blog, is it necessary to take some time to internalize, to place the information in context? In addition, if we want to make content ourselves we need to alternate between consumption and production.

Moreover, in child development, isn’t it necessary that children learn to entertain themselves? How can that be done if they are constantly being entertained by other sources?

Occasionally, it is only through absence that we come to appreciate the world. Your favorite food tastes even better if you haven’t had it for a year. The warmth of summer feels all the better after the cold of winter. To that end, do we need to spend some time NOT reading or listening to stories, binging TV shows, or watching movies in order to appreciate them all the more?

Is some downtime required? How do we choose between the multitude of demands on us? Is our attention fractured?

Related questions: Are we too busy? How can we maintain wonder? How do you set priorities? What makes something memorable? What are you willing to sacrifice?

5 thoughts on “Is Our Attention Fractured?”

  1. Yes, a healthy brain requires downtime. And, yes, there are so many — too many — sources of content competing to occupy every spare moment we have.

    And I plead guilty to making matters worse. I am a content-creator. Blogging — for Intellectual Roundtable, Dissident Potato, and (potentially again) Prone to Hope — as well as posting questions (usually music-related) on Facebook are a bit of an obsession of mine. And I want to see if people are using, enjoying, or acting upon the information I put out there. So I check stats on my blogs and and notifications on my Facebook posts more than is likely needed. This says nothing about my consumption of content. I binge-watch on Netflix, I watch videos on YouTube, I read other blogs posted in garden groups on Facebook, I read local and national political news, I always have a book or two I am reading, and I do focused research on items related to climate change, the broken food system, as well as issues related to anti-poverty measures. Yes, I create and consume a lot of content — perhaps too much for my brain to remember and use optimally.

    The key to this all is, I think, is to set aside time for reflection. Schedule time. Schedule time for your brain to either turn off (if it must) or to process (if that’s what you want to do).

    In one sense I do well at this. I devote 10 to 15 minutes each morning to meditation. This time is meant for me to shut down; or more accurately, to recognize thoughts and feelings, acknowledge them, and then let them go … if only for a short time each morning. What I haven’t done is set aside time for reflection on what I consume. As a result, I find myself forgetting a ton. Daily writing on the most helpful bits of consumption would be a great thing for me to schedule. I could reduce consumption (e.g. reading Facebook posts) or creating (e.g. blog posts) for a half an hour each day or so to simply writing about the most important things I’ve consumed.

    I could. I don’t know if I will. I should.

    1. Michael, it occurred to me that your gardening must give you quiet time away from information overload. I’m not much of a gardener, but digging in the dirt, planting things and watching them grow is very satisfying to me. Any time I spend outdoors, breathing fresh air and enjoying nature is relaxing and invigorating. This spring-like weather lately is wonderful!

  2. I truly need down time. Even of 10 minutes of quiet. It can be difficult to at least not fidget during that time. But it makes a big difference. Kind of like a speed nap. Amazing to me is the peace that comes with it. Anger can boil down to frustration rather than the anger or disgust. Any level downward to a level i can deal with issues makes life a little easier.

  3. I don’t know who said it, but my current watchword is “moderation in all things.” I have a tendency to go overboard with some of my interests, so lately I’m scaling back on some of them in order to lead a more balanced life. I love to read, and so I just ordered my first Harry Potter book. I’m hoping it will give me some insight into my Granddaughter’s world.

  4. In my opinion our attention is definitely fractured.

    Whenever I can shut out the overwhelming stimuli generated by our culture, I find the time and space to chart my own course, and reclaim my own creativity. But I do a poor job of it when I’m rushing to absorb and/or respond to every input that’s coming at me. I can’t hear my own voice. So I keep news, blogs, etc. at arms’ length. Silence and stillness are the default for my down time, and I let other things in sparingly. Otherwise I deplete my batteries, rather than recharging them for the next foray out into the world.

    Sometimes there’s a social price to pay for this decision. I’m rarely aware of the latest national disaster when the family starts to discuss it around the dinner table. A friend recently bought me a subscription to Minecraft so we could play together, even though we are geographically far apart. I can’t bring myself to give up the personal time that this would require of me, and I know he is disappointed. And Lee probably wishes that I would contribute here more often. 🙂

    Productivity – bah, humbug. I prefer Bhutan’s model of Gross National Happiness. At some future date when I’m settling into my grave, I doubt I will regret not producing more. But I would certainly be sorry to look back and see that I could have been happier, and wasn’t.

    (P.S. – Enjoy Harry Potter, Tom. It is a delightful series.)

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