Angry Robot


honestly, I do believe, the single most important thing educators can do is to teach breathing techniques that regulate the autonomic nervous system and help up regulate parasympathetic response. This is at the heart of attention, social and emotional intelligence, and contributes to cognition. Further, educators can consider how reflection time might be integrated into the school day.

Then, there is this article from The Globe that in order to explain how nature makes kids learn better, gets into the difference between two kinds of attention:

The dominant idea about how nature helps kids learn is called “attention restoration theory” and is based on evidence that humans have two different kinds of attention. One is directed and takes effort and concentration. It is what students use when they do long division, what adults use to get a memo written at work.

“You only have a certain amount of it,” said University of Michigan brain scientist Marc Berman.

Directing our attention to a task is very different from having it captured by something in the environment, a butterfly flitting by the window or a car speeding down the street. This is involuntary attention […] Engaging the involuntary system allows the directed-attention system to rest and recover, and getting outside in a natural setting is a very good way to switch from one system to the other. Nature offers “soft fascination,” he said. It is interesting enough to engage us, but not riveting enough to absorb us. Urban settings aren’t as restful because they require more vigilance to avoid cars, buses or other hazards. Television, movies and computer games may be too absorbing to allow the circuitry involved in paying attention to recharge.

We have at least three mental states being discussed in these articles – directed attention, or concentration; partial attention, or multitasking; and involuntary attention, or just chilling out. None of these are new, but perhaps a good question is whether modern technologies are exploiting weaknesses in the human brain. From another fascinating Times article:

The results also illustrate an age-old conflict in the brain, one that technology may be intensifying. A portion of the brain acts as a control tower, helping a person focus and set priorities. More primitive parts of the brain, like those that process sight and sound, demand that it pay attention to new information, bombarding the control tower when they are stimulated.

Researchers say there is an evolutionary rationale for the pressure this barrage puts on the brain. The lower-brain functions alert humans to danger, like a nearby lion, overriding goals like building a hut. In the modern world, the chime of incoming e-mail can override the goal of writing a business plan or playing catch with the children.

“Throughout evolutionary history, a big surprise would get everyone’s brain thinking,” said Clifford Nass, a communications professor at Stanford. “But we’ve got a large and growing group of people who think the slightest hint that something interesting might be going on is like catnip. They can’t ignore it.”

A few thoughts, perhaps not as thorough as I’d like (who can string an essay together anymore?). One, we have a sort of ecology of attention here, with concentration needed to perform tasks, but a lack of involuntary attention decreasing our concentration time. Two, we have new stressors (technology-enabled ‘alerts’) also interrupting our direct attention, exploiting weaknesses in how the brain perceives threats.

On the one hand, I’m wary of blaming technology for our own failures of self-control. The teen who blames Facebook for the fact that he can’t do homework only deserves sympathy for his failings in understanding and managing his own attention, a problem we all face – and have all faced for quite some time.

On the other, as we race into what some have termed the attention economy, it’s clear that some of these new attention sucks are rather cleverly designed to distract us. Cable news outlets slap ALERT on everything because it keeps eyeballs on their channel; game designers aim for addictiveness; application designers strive for stickiness. Commercials and trailers are stuffed with tits and explosions.

The storm of media we all brave every day is ever-changing, and we must adjust ourselves to it. But there will always be distractions. To counter them, we need to understand our minds better, and learn how to cultivate them – and it’s not easy work (that’s sort of the idea). Try this exercise:

We begin working on ourselves by counting the breath, counting each inhalation and each exhalation, beginning with one and counting up to ten. When you get to ten, come back to one and start all over. The only agreement that you make with yourself in this process is that if your mind begins to wander – if you become aware that what you’re doing is chasing thoughts – you will look at the thought, acknowledge it, and then deliberately and consciously let it go and begin the count again at one.

It’s hard at first. But it gets easier after a couple years.