When we acclimate to the consumption of brief videos and incessant scrolling, can we still maintain unwavering focus when the need arises? A Microsoft report has revealed that our attention span has dwindled from 12 seconds in the year 2000 to a mere 8 seconds today, a duration shorter than that of a goldfish. Stefan van der Steigscher, a Dutch psychologist and the author of “Our Attention Stolen,” asserts that our cognitive faculties possess a remarkable resilience such that, when the matter at hand is of significance, we are capable of directing our undivided attention towards it. For instance, if a professor were to promise students a reward of 5,000 euros upon attentively listening for half an hour, their concentration would assuredly be unwavering.
Esteemed British author Tom Moore likewise subscribes to the notion that focus necessitates a deliberate investment. In his literary work, titled “Only Books,” he expounds: “Inattention has become our prevailing state of mind. All creators of online content comprehend the imperative of captivating our attention, albeit fleetingly, merely to ascertain our click-throughs and augment their usage statistics. On the web, we venture into the realm of scanning, skipping, glimpsing, and linking. Consequently, the sustained and concentrated attentiveness that profound reading has always demanded seems increasingly elusive. In the future, disengagement from digital media might become a privilege, one accessible solely to the privileged few who can afford to silence the clamor of email and social media notifications, while the less fortunate will be compelled to engage in menial labor. The economy has become intertwined with smartphones… continuous perusal of printed literature will metamorphose into a privilege, and affluent parents will allocate funds to ensure their children acquire this rarefied skill.”
When our attention becomes diverted, it typically takes approximately 20 minutes before we can resume our prior task. “The abundance of information surrounding us perpetually,” van der Steigscher explicates, “renders it nearly impossible to absorb every aspect of our surroundings, be it the natural world or our own abodes. Our brains possess the capacity to process only a fraction of the available information, thus necessitating a choice. The act of selective attention becomes imperative.”
“Attention can be directed towards a singular focal point at any given moment. However, the contemporary milieu inundates us with an abundance of stimuli clamoring for our attention. In truth, we must redirect our attention and allow our minds to wander in order to ensure our own safety. While traversing a street, we must permit distractions that pertain to our well-being to seize our attention. Similarly, when we find ourselves in a tranquil environment and someone enters the room, vigilance is necessary to ensure our security. Instances of novelty, divergence, and significance captivate our attention. The brain lacks the discernment to differentiate whether a distraction entails the notification of a whimsical feline video or the sudden appearance of a formidable lion. Rather, it merely dispatches a signal, urging us to investigate. Only after we investigate and discern the nature of the distraction do we regain focus.”
In the year 1845, during the month of March, Thoreau borrowed an axe and ventured into the woods near Walden Pond to engage in woodcutting. On a particular day, the axe head detached from the handle, prompting him to fashion a green hickory branch into a wedge. It was during this moment that he observed a serpentine flower snake leaping into the water and lurking at the lake’s depths. “Perhaps it had not yet emerged from its dormant state. The reason why humanity remains mired in a state of intellectual and primitive mediocrity lies in the same vein. Not long ago, on a frosty morning, I encountered several snakes on the trail, some parts of their serpentine bodies still plagued by numbness and a lack of suppleness.”
Caleb Smith, a erudite professor at Yale University, asserts in his tome “Thoreau’s Ax” that Thoreau perceives human apathy not as an inherent characteristic but as a consequence of the deleterious effects of modern civilization upon both nature and mankind. Rather than remaining entrenched in the past, humanity has become ensnared in the present. This state of dormancy does not denote indolence, but rather represents the inattentiveness, fatigue, and mechanical nature of our actions during work and leisure. These factors render us numb rather than tranquil. Thoreau famously proclaimed, “Our inventions oftentimes manifest as enchanting baubles that divert us from matters of import.” He posited that the world has grown exceedingly cacophonous, eroding our ability to bestow our undivided attention upon subjects deserving of it. The swifter the pace of life, the more diminished our concentration becomes, whereas attentiveness enriches our experiences, fosters deeper connections with others, and promotes tranquility of mind.
To preserve our focus, Thoreau implores us to “rediscover redemption through steadfast perseveranceand deliberate disengagement from the incessant distractions of the modern world. He advocates for a return to nature, where the mind can find solace and regain its capacity for sustained attention. In the solitude of the woods, away from the clamor of society, Thoreau believed one could reconnect with their inner self and find clarity of thought. By immersing oneself in the natural world, the mind becomes attuned to the subtle details and rhythms of life, fostering a heightened sense of awareness and focus.
Thoreau’s philosophy resonates with the concept of mindfulness, which has gained prominence in recent years as a means to counteract the diminishing attention spans of the digital age. Mindfulness encourages individuals to cultivate a non-judgmental awareness of the present moment, fully engaging with their thoughts, feelings, and surroundings. Through practices such as meditation and deep breathing, one can train the mind to be more attentive and less susceptible to distractions.
In essence, maintaining focus in an era of diminishing attention spans requires conscious effort and intentional choices. It involves recognizing the impact of technology and the fast-paced nature of modern life on our ability to concentrate, and actively seeking strategies to counteract these influences. Whether through immersing oneself in nature, practicing mindfulness, or adopting other techniques that promote deep focus, it is possible to reclaim and cultivate our capacity for sustained attention. By doing so, we can enrich our experiences, deepen our understanding, and find moments of tranquility amidst the chaos of the world around us.