Attention Span and Mindfulness

There is one big reason why we pay attention. We think something is important. Of course, something may be of importance to us for a variety of reasons. There is interest. Something catchy, something attractive, something unusual - these attract our attention. There is motivation. If paying attention leads to rewards and not paying attention leads to penalties, this may just lead us to believe that we do need to pay attention. Paying attention is simply a will. We basically choose and decide.

An article in the New York Times, "Technology Changing How Students Learn, Teachers Say", in November 2012 talked about concerns from teachers:
There is a widespread belief among teachers that students’ constant use of digital technology is hampering their attention spans and ability to persevere in the face of challenging tasks, according to two surveys of teachers being released on Thursday. 
The researchers note that their findings represent the subjective views of teachers and should not be seen as definitive proof that widespread use of computers, phones and video games affects students’ capability to focus.
Excessive texting, playing video games, and surfing social networks can indeed be addicting and as mentioned in a previous post in this blog, "This Is Your Brain and This Is Your Brain on Facebook", may in fact alter the structure of the brain depriving it of self-control. Whether technology alters the cognitive brain, that is a different question. Paying attention involves two things: ability and willingness. The fact that minds that are addicted to video games can play for hours suggests that the ability is not really lost. If one gets the same amount of concentration inside a classroom from a student, this may in fact be extraordinary. Thus, what technology may be doing is altering how people make choices on what things deserve their attention.

THE 2013 Harvard Initiative for Learning and Teaching(HILT) conference was held last month and it had the following word cloud:

The two biggest words above are "engagement" and "listening". These are essentially "paying attention". "Paying attention" is difficult especially when something looks boring. It is hard when the gains are not really forthcoming or obvious. The desire for instant gratification oftentimes works against "paying attention". Technology may have open our eyes to so many distractions. However, understanding that it is not our ability to pay attention that has been compromised, but only our impressions on what is and what is not important, should remind us that we can still pay attention.

One of the panels in year's HILT discussed "“Strategic Patience”: The Art of Teaching". And in this panel, description of an art lesson illustrated how students can be reintroduced to the virtue of patience. The following is an excerpt from the Harvard Magazine's Advancing the Science and Art of Teaching.
Jennifer L. Roberts, professor of history of art and architecture (and chair of American studies), drew on the conventions of her discipline to make the case for decelerating education, introducing Internet-era students to the virtues of deep patience and close attention—attributes “no longer available in nature” as they experience it. She explained how she required her students to prepare an intense research paper on a single work of art, beginning with close examination of the work at painful length: three hours. The time is “designed to seem excessive,” she said—but students emerge “astonished by what they have been able to see.”

She proceeded to demonstrate the payoff by offering a mini art-history lesson based on her close analysis of John Singleton Copley’s 1765 painting Boy with a Squirrel. Vision—seeing—has come to mean instantaneous apprehension, she said, but “There are details, relationships, and orders that take time to see.” During her first hour with the painting, she recounted, details emerged about the shapes of the boy’s ear and the squirrel’s ruff, the proportion of hand and glass of water (and the symbolism of the latter, an image Copley used only this one time), the folds of a curtain and the depiction of eye and ear. Over time, she elicited a story about philosophical empiricism, and Copley’s deliberate creation of a work he planned to send across the ocean for review and reaction in London—an early instance of “distance learning” as he sought training from the academic painters at the peak of the European art community. Given the communication speeds of the day, she said, “This painting is formed out of delay, not in spite of it.” In light of the sense of time and speeds of the day, the meaning of the work can be interpreted only at “the slow end of this temporal spectrum.”

For Roberts, these were some of the fruits of “teaching strategic patience” (what others today might call “time management,” she joked, or “patience engineering”)—and of giving students permission to slow down and exercise their unknown faculties. The challenge for a harried Harvard faculty member, she said, was to model this behavior without showing how frazzled she could herself become from the demands of teaching, research, and the rest of contemporary life.
John Singleton Copley’s 1765 painting Boy with a Squirrel
Related to this, scientists at the University of California, Santa Barbara, found out that "paying attention" can be acquired by training. Their paper, "Mindfulness Training Improves Working Memory Capacity and GRE Performance While Reducing Mind Wandering", published in the journal Psychological Science has the following abstract:
The mindfulness training involves exercises requiring focused attention to some aspect of sensory experience (e.g., sensations of breathing, tastes of a piece of fruit, or sounds of an audio recording), yet it produces positive results on verbal tests (Graduate Record Examination (GRE)) and working memory capacity measures:

Michael D. Mrazek, Michael S. Franklin, Dawa Tarchin Phillips, Benjamin Baird,
and Jonathan W. Schooler. Mindfulness Training Improves Working Memory Capacity and GRE Performance While Reducing Mind Wandering. Psychological Science 0956797612459659, first published on March 28, 2013doi:10.1177/0956797612459659
The "mindfulness" class above is compared against a group of students who spent the same amount of time, not on meditation but on discussing food topics.

We can pay attention, if we choose to....