What Deserves Your Attention?

Our brains are remarkable entities. We can perform some truly amazing mental feats, like learning language, memorization, pattern matching, and reading maps (among others). One of the less heralded skills is that of providing attention.

Every waking moment, your mind is focused on a task (and sometimes more than one if you try to multi-task). How you choose to spend your time is how your attention is allocated.

In our modern world, there is fierce competition for our attention. This serves as an illustration about how valuable it is. Entire industries revolve around how to capture — and keep — your attention.

In The News

For example, let’s consider a cable news program. A typical news show features several different items for you to pay attention to. An interview might be going on, so you might be listening to the content being spoken aloud. There is likely a graphic with the guest’s name and qualifications. This sometimes also updates to a notable quote or excerpt from the interview.

In addition, there may be a news scroll across the bottom of the screen with news headlines, and there may be a “breaking news” blurb specifically designed to draw your eyes. Often included is some sort of steady information, like the current time and temperature, or the state of the stock market. Finally, there is certainly a station identifier, to let you know exactly what channel you are viewing.

Having so much information available serves several purposes. The primary purpose — say, the interview — is presumably the reason to tune in initially. The others are there to provide information that might be helpful to you, but also to keep you from giving your attention to another source.

When you are watching a program like this, your attention is primarily focused on one item. However, there is likely some small percentage of your attention on each element on the screen.

Demands Of Social Media

Have you ever noticed that when usingĀ  a social media site like Facebook or Twitter, that you mean to do a quick check, but then find that half an hour or even more has passed without you realizing it? That happens because the layout and design of these sites are carefully crafted to capture and keep your attention. Facebook wants you to keep scrolling and Netflix wants you to keep binging.

With so many different demands on our valuable attention, have you given any thought to how you spend your time? News, family, your smartphone, the local sports team, a book: what deserves our attention?

Related questions: How do you set priorities? Are we too busy? What do you get out of social media? Is our attention fractured?

Why Are Bad Words Bad?

@#$%!

We are all familiar with swear words. Whether they are taught to us by an older sibling, or a particularly mischievous kid at the playground, or you happen to overhear adults swearing, these words often fascinate us as children.

It makes sense. Children, particularly very young children, are among the most powerless members of society. They have to be fed, clothed, taken everywhere, they don’t have or make money. And yet, just by speaking a particular set of words, they can elicit a reaction from adults all around.

These words also hold some fascination, even for adults. You may or may not swear yourself, but cursing is everywhere. Certain words are bleeped on broadcast TV, sometimes with humorous effects. For example, late night talk show host Jimmy Kimmel has a recurring segment called “This Week in Unnecessary Censorship“. In it, non-swear words are bleeped, with the intended effect to make seemingly innocuous speech sound dirty.

But what is it about these words that makes them bad?

$#*!

To help examine this question, let’s look at the word shit. What makes this word bad? What are the qualities that make it so offensive that it can’t be spoken in polite conversation?

Certainly it isn’t the action itself. We are all familiar with going to the bathroom — it is among those things that everybody does. There is even a children’s book called “Everybody Poops”. The concept of pooping is something that is explained to every child in every language and in every culture. It has to be, because, well, everybody poops.

So there must be a difference between the word poop and the word shit. They can’t simply be synonyms, or else why would you be able to say “poop” on broadcast TV and not be bleeped, but “shit” is censored every time?

What is the difference? Is it the context in which it is used? Is it simply that everyone agrees that it is a bad word? Would it be possible to just agree that a bad word is no longer a bad word? Why are bad words bad?

Related questions: How does your vocabulary influence how you think? Where do shared ideas exist? What do we have in common? What words have the most power?

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?