Saturday, June 17, 2006

One of the great difficulties in effective communication is that to be a great messenger you need more than something important to say or the capacity to say something well. Your most important act is to win the attention of those who you want to receive the message. Without that, your effort goes for naught.

Attention is actually a scarce commodity. While we like to attribute that to living in an age of cell phones, PDA's, the internet, 500 channel cable TV, video games, treos, blackberries ad nauseum, I suspect that we are exaggerating their collective effect and that inattentiveness and a proclivity to distraction is our natural state. We like to imagine that in the past, we had a simpler, more solemn and focused age. Well, at the Lincoln-Douglas Debates, Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas spoke before crowds of up to 20,000 - who milled about, coughed, laughed, cheered, jeered, engaged in conversation, hollared, smoked, spat, ate food, held wailing babies, argued, fought with fists, tended horses and meandered about drunk. As one historian put it:

"At some of the debates there were no ladies present, but at others, they were there and given the only seats that were available except for the Conestoga wagons and the covered wagons that some of the people arrived on. People sat on their wagons. It makes one wonder how many people actually heard the speeches and how many people were out for the celebration. You know, you had ice cream being consumed and picnic barbecues, liquid refreshment -- a lot of liquid refreshment -- fights breaking out in the back of the auditorium, the back of the crowds, a cannon being fired off. Douglas traveled with his own cannon. That was the only amplification around. He traveled with a brass cannon, and his supporters were instructed to fire it every time he got off a good point against Lincoln. So there was lots of noise, lots of crowd yelling and cheering and booing and talking back, nothing like the debates today where our candidates make such an intentional and careful effort to take the high ground and to be very calm and not answer. Negatives and fighting and audience attacks were part of the game."

Not quite the school textbook image. I have to wonder how many people heard even half of what was said, given that these debates ran for three hours straight. Lincoln's propensity for jokes, irreverence and colorful stories for which he was sometimes criticized, as unbefitting the dignity of his office, were learned on the stump as devices to entertain and win the crowd's attention. The fact that sound bites on TV have grown more effective as they have been made shorter is a poor indication of what the actual average American attention span might be.

As poorly as we sometimes are at paying attention extrospectively - we could benefit far more by greater attention or some old fashioned Zen "mindfulness" being directed inward. Metacognitive regulation requires an introspective monitoring of one's thoughts and ideas, which means active, conscious, effort to pay attention. This requires practice to sustain for any length of time though on the other extreme, master Yogis and Zen monks have exhibited the ability to effect significant physiological changes through meditative concentration. Having acquired sufficient attention to engage in metacognition, we can begin to select our cognitive frames and approach problems with greater discrimination and conscious choice, rather than being driven frantically by events, simply reacting.

It pays to pay attention.
"The fact that sound bites on TV have grown more effective as they have been made shorter is a poor indication of what the actual average American attention span might be."

Using soundbites as the standard for judging attantion span is a mistake. First of all even if we just focus on TV, we will see that television content is not made up of short soundbites. While there are soundbites used in commercials and news reports, most of the programming is made up of longer forms such as movies and sporting events as well as the 30 min. and 1 hour long shows. There are millions of people watching 2-3 hour ballgames watching every pitch, every down, every jump shot and seeing all kinds of details in execution and strategy and yet only "soundbites" are mentioned when it comes to attention span? Isn't that like saying that because the length of haiku is short therefore the average Japanese attention span is short?

I agree with you that there is great value in the contemplative techniques developed in Buddhism and other traditions. Transpersonal psychology was devised to study exactly those techniques and the potentialities of consciousness that are too often dismissed. Have you read any of Ken Wilbur's works?
Hi phil,

Maybe and maybe not. One measure of attention is what has been retained. For example:

I certainly agree with you that there are baseball fans who absorb every play or nearly every play, in minute detail. But they are not the entirety of the audience, just the one's with the most motivation and expertise. There are millions more who catch only some of this and casual and distracted semi-observers who followed in the wake of a more interested party.

I think " soundbites" get the mention because they may be set a length that maximizes retention for the largest percentage of the audience- including the unmotivated, indifferent, hostile or just plain not teribly bright. That at least points in the direction of a kind of aggregate mean, if not "the" aggregate mean for overall attention span.

Re: Wilbur: No, I have not - what would you recommend from his work ?
Post a Comment

<< Home
Zenpundit - a NEWSMAGAZINE and JOURNAL of scholarly opinion.

My Photo
Location: Chicago, United States

" The great majority of mankind are satisfied with appearances as though they were realities" -- Machiavelli

Determined Designs Web Solutions Lijit Search
02/01/2003 - 03/01/2003 / 03/01/2003 - 04/01/2003 / 04/01/2003 - 05/01/2003 / 05/01/2003 - 06/01/2003 / 06/01/2003 - 07/01/2003 / 07/01/2003 - 08/01/2003 / 08/01/2003 - 09/01/2003 / 09/01/2003 - 10/01/2003 / 10/01/2003 - 11/01/2003 / 11/01/2003 - 12/01/2003 / 12/01/2003 - 01/01/2004 / 01/01/2004 - 02/01/2004 / 02/01/2004 - 03/01/2004 / 03/01/2004 - 04/01/2004 / 04/01/2004 - 05/01/2004 / 05/01/2004 - 06/01/2004 / 06/01/2004 - 07/01/2004 / 07/01/2004 - 08/01/2004 / 08/01/2004 - 09/01/2004 / 09/01/2004 - 10/01/2004 / 10/01/2004 - 11/01/2004 / 11/01/2004 - 12/01/2004 / 12/01/2004 - 01/01/2005 / 01/01/2005 - 02/01/2005 / 02/01/2005 - 03/01/2005 / 03/01/2005 - 04/01/2005 / 04/01/2005 - 05/01/2005 / 05/01/2005 - 06/01/2005 / 06/01/2005 - 07/01/2005 / 07/01/2005 - 08/01/2005 / 08/01/2005 - 09/01/2005 / 09/01/2005 - 10/01/2005 / 10/01/2005 - 11/01/2005 / 11/01/2005 - 12/01/2005 / 12/01/2005 - 01/01/2006 / 01/01/2006 - 02/01/2006 / 02/01/2006 - 03/01/2006 / 03/01/2006 - 04/01/2006 / 04/01/2006 - 05/01/2006 / 05/01/2006 - 06/01/2006 / 06/01/2006 - 07/01/2006 / 07/01/2006 - 08/01/2006 / 08/01/2006 - 09/01/2006 / 09/01/2006 - 10/01/2006 / 10/01/2006 - 11/01/2006 / 11/01/2006 - 12/01/2006 / 12/01/2006 - 01/01/2007 / 01/01/2007 - 02/01/2007 / 02/01/2007 - 03/01/2007 / 03/01/2007 - 04/01/2007 / 04/01/2007 - 05/01/2007 / 05/01/2007 - 06/01/2007 / 06/01/2007 - 07/01/2007 / 07/01/2007 - 08/01/2007 / 08/01/2007 - 09/01/2007 / 09/01/2007 - 10/01/2007 / 10/01/2007 - 11/01/2007 / 11/01/2007 - 12/01/2007 /

follow zenpundit at http://twitter.com
This plugin requires Adobe Flash 9.
Get this widget!
Sphere Featured Blogs Powered by Blogger StatisfyZenpundit

Site Feed Who Links Here
Buzztracker daily image Blogroll Me!