Short attention span in children and adults.
What is concentration?
To answer this question, and move on to investigate short attention span in children and adults, we need to understand what is concentration.
I've experienced incredibly deep concentration. One day when I was programming a computer, it was quiet. I was alone. There was nothing to disturb or direct my attention anywhere else other than the problem in hand.
It was a wonderful feeling to be totally absorbed in what I can only describe as the mental equivalent to a walk in a forest, where there were many items to collect, examine, hold, touch, smell, and generally absorb.
With nothing to distract me, I built up a long mental queue of things to do. It was something like navigating a maze. I placed an idea or concept at one corner—put it on the ground for later, or balanced it on a fence. I moved from one idea to the next logical component of that idea, completed it, tested it, and finalised it. I gave it a name and tracked back to the previous idea. Sometimes, I could complete that and track back again, and sometimes I had to put it on the fence again and complete a dependency.
Everything was logical. Everything was working. It was all going very well. No bugs, no missing code and no untested logic. If I had to use one word to describe it, this word would be 'silky'.
Then my wife spoke.
My whole body left the chair and my nerves buzzed. All the delicately balanced ideas and concepts came crashing down. Every node in my mental stack popped like delicate soap bubbles. I lost my place in the maze. I was surrounded by a disturbing debris of concepts, code fragments and tenuous seeds of significant solutions. It was as if my mental world had exploded into a charred disordered tangle.
I never recovered from that interruption. The usual inevitable bugs crept in. I forgot fragments of code or logic and the last 10%—as usual—took 90% of the time. Although I eventually had it all working, debugged and reliable, the process was not 'silky'. It was more like clearing a minefield.
That's what deep concentration is like. It's a rare beast for sure.
What is attention span?
Deep concentration depends on a long attention span. We need, therefore to describe what this is.
Primate (and other) brains have two hemispheres. Although the rumour is they can work independently, there are a couple of extra interesting points. One is that there is inter-hemisphere communication through a thick band of nerve fibres called the corpus callosum. The other is that each hemisphere has a complimentary processing style. When one side is not involved with a particular problem, the overall outcome is poor. Here is an example: In certain right-brain stroke patients, they still understand words like the elements of a puzzle but falter when trying to derive higher meaning. This means that jokes fall flat and they can't extract the meaning of metaphors. Despite understanding each word of "Fruit flies like a banana", they won't identify the paradox.
An attention-span is the ability to engage both hemispheres with a single problem without distraction for a period. Once one or both hemispheres focuses on something else, the attention span is terminated.
When an attention span is terminated, whatever is in short-term memory gets forgotten. That's typically about six or seven objects. When you return to the interrupted task, you need to reconstruct those objects.
Only if you are prepared for an interruption, can you take the time to record your short term memory for faster reconstruction later. When you can do this, we call it a successful context-switch. All context switches are inefficient. It takes considerable time and effort to find a way to store the state of your short term memory, move onto another task, store that state, then pick up again with the first.
Obviously too many context-switches causes significant inefficiency. The so called "Multi-tasker" is certainly not able to complete tasks any faster by trying to do more than one thing at a time. In fact, the multi-tasker is less efficient.
Therefore, to increase your attention-span, you need to minimise context switches. That's difficult. Today, it's more difficult than ever due to technology, work-pressures, unreal expectations, and lack of permission from the self, and from others to be allowed to concentrate.
Unfortunately, today, there seems to be many barriers to overcome. Here I list and explain some of the modern pressures.
- The open-door policy. This bizarre modern management technique is apparently meant to make employees feel like they have full support at any time. "My door is always open." is not true. Sometimes a manager with an open-door policy closes it for an interview, or an important upper-management phone call. Sometimes the manager is not there and locks the door. You see, it's a silly thing to claim in the first place. When the door is open, the manager is distracted. He or she might need to concentrate on rosters (or pay rises?) If anyone can burst in at any time for any reason, then the poor manager loses attention span. A really inefficient context switch bores into his productivity. Or she is distracted and unable to give the employee the level of attention that the employee deserves. In reality, it's a rare event indeed that cannot be scheduled. Fire, flood, someone dropping into a coma, and perhaps a phone call from a very hard-to-reach person deserves interruption; but most things don't. Most things can and should be scheduled.
- Telephones. These used to be screwed to the wall. Then we had DECT phones with limited range. Now we have at least one mobile phone small enough to be ever present. Even in the cinema, I see people texting and making or taking phone calls. They contain games, email, applets of many kinds. They buzz and beep and tweet and chirp. Sometimes every few minutes these nasty little accessories are pulling on the apron-strings. "Deal with me Mummy. Deal with me NOW!"
- Email. As above: email on the phone, but also email on the laptop, and email on the tablet. Email in the kitchen and bedroom and sometimes on the toilet. Most email is very low value. Most is an insulting waste of your attention, and they all vie for your precious time. They force expensive context switches. Unfortunately other forms of instant communication like social media and a plethora of messengers compound the problem to the point where hyper-connected people are reporting withdrawal symptoms if they are severed from the collective.
- Computer Games. This is a worrying problem. It's not that games are bad. Games are good! They train your hand-eye coordination and planning skills. They enhance people's ability to perceive and react. Games make great breaks and rewards. But there is a problem, and I think it is a big one. Most modern games demand and control your attention and make you concentrate hard and deep. You might ask why that is a problem. I say, it is because the games (not you) are in control. When you CHOOSE to concentrate on something, then you are free. When you are playing a game that cannot be interrupted, you are not in control. The games are masters of your mind. They ply you with a fire-hose of stimulants. Just as you cannot see in the dark after being blinded by the sun, you are not able to concentrate on things that DON'T demand attention if you are a hard-core gamer.
I teach computer-related administrative activities at times. I've noticed that some students have more trouble resolving issues than others. I can tell the hard-core gamers because THEY DON'T READ ERROR MESSAGES. If an explanatory message pops up, the hard-core gamer will snap the little close-cross faster than you can blink. I reckon this is because any interrupting box that pops up during a game must be killed instantly. It's become a habit. You see, the GAME is in control of YOUR concentration, and this mindset spills out into the real world.
If you are one of those highly-connected tech-savy people, then you probably have acquired a junky-like need for constant high-level stimulation. This stimulation comes FROM the thing that you like doing. If you really want to learn to have a long attention span, then you must regain control. It is YOU who needs to decide what is a stimulus. It is YOU who needs to prepare to pause your attention without external distractions or indeed, internal mental craving for addictive hyper-connected activity.
If you always demand that the thing you are doing MUST be the source of stimulation, then you will not be able to concentrate on normal activities. You will find it hard to read a novel or write a poem or tackle a mathematical problem. These are all tasks where it is YOU who must control your attention.
OK - how do we fix this issue?
You must give yourself permission to concentrate. You must also manipulate your environment to make it conducive to long-term attention spans. This means to ask other people to leave you in peace for certain periods. Explain why. Explain what you are trying to do and why you need to minimise distractions. Your environment should be free of anything distracting:
- People passing by
- Casual chat
I'm sure you can think of a lot more distractions, but generally the idea is to create and immerse yourself in an environment where you minimise the chance of being interrupted. You need to let others know that you are entering a period of concentration, and give yourself permission to let everything else go.
There are a few mental rituals that will help you prepare for a period of long attention. One is called mindefulness. This is a tool that originated from Buddhist meditation. It is now commonly used in clinical psychology. Mindfulness has many benefits, but the one I want to emphasise is how it allows you to live in the moment. By doing this, you can exclude distractions, even if they are present. These distractions might be real outside noises or internal mental chatter that normally won't leave you alone. By deliberately using a pre-task mindefulness session, you will dramatically increase your ability to hold a long attention span. If you make this a habit before embarking on a task, then it will become second nature. You will become more efficient and have less wasteful context switches.
Stress and depression play havoc with one's ability to concentrate. In some ways, the path we must take to attain a long attention span is the same path taken in part to remedy anxiety, stress, and other mental disorders. One does not lead the other as these are inextricably intertwined. If you know you are stressed or anxious, then you will most likely be unable to think clearly and concentrate. So seek medical help for that. As you learn to concentrate more, this will assist recovery.
Food and fitness
Some food is very hollow. Nutritionists call this "High GI" food. These are foods that are very easily and quickly broken down into sugars. In turn, these sugars get used as energy or often contribute to fat-stores. Highly processed white bred, wholemeal, white-rice, many potato types, simple carbohydrates, sugars of various types and several other commonly consumed hi-GI foods must be eliminated before a period of concentration. It's bad if you get too much blood sugar, then not enough as the levels crash later.
Eat micro-nutrient foods like vegetables and most fruits, a few nuts, beans, pulses, protein like eggs and a very small amount of unsaturated fat or preferably polyunsaturated oils. Consume oats and high-fibre food. After that, you will not be hungry for several hours. You will not be distracted by a need to boost blood-sugar levels because these foods make you feel full for longer, and then release energy steadily over a long period. There is one rule for good nutrition: The closer to nature, the better it is. Anything packaged, pre-processed, refined or manufactured in any way is on the long list of "NO".
Avoid alcohol and stimulants as these affect your brain directly. You brain will work best when it is supplied by the right nutrition, is at the right temperature, and an efficient blood supply. I've heard some people say that thinking is tiring. This is true! The brain is a very energy-hungry organ so you need to exercise properly to keep an efficient supply of oxygen to the brain, and deliver those nutrients. It will help to swim or run before needing to concentrate hard.
You may have noticed that the ability hold a long attention span is strongly linked to good health. If you exercise properly, eat well and practice mindfulness, then your chances will be high to enjoy deep concentration over a long time.