Thursday, September 8, 2011

WSJ: Learning How to Focus on Focus - By Jonah Lehrer

Found via Farnam Street.

For most of human history, the progress of knowledge was constrained by a shortage of information. Books were expensive and rare, libraries were reserved for elite scholars and communication was extremely slow. Mail moved at the speed of horses.

Now, of course, we live in the age of Google and Amazon Prime, a time when nearly everything ever written can be accessed within seconds or delivered within days. Facts are cheap and easy; the cellphone has become an infinite library.

So what's holding us back? Why does this surfeit of information so often feel overwhelming instead of enlightening? The answer returns us to the stubborn limitations of the human mind, especially when it comes to the ability to focus properly. As the psychologist Herbert Simon famously declared, "A wealth of information creates a poverty of attention."

But it doesn't have to be this way; the mind isn't quite as constrained as we've assumed. Though our attention will always be a scare resource, easily steamrolled by the world's abundant distractions, it's possible to improve our focus, to become better at dealing with the excess of information.

The key is strengthening what psychologists call "executive function," a collection of cognitive skills that allow us to exert control over our thoughts and impulses. When we resist the allure of a sweet treat, or do homework instead of watch television, or concentrate for hours on a difficult problem, we are relying on these lofty mental talents. What we want to do in the moment, and what we want to want, are often very different things. Executive function helps to narrow the gap.


Though in kindergarten we often attempt to track aspects of executive function—the report card of a 5-year-old is filled with ratings about the ability to focus and stay on task—these categories vanish for the rest of a student's academic career, replaced by an obsession with academic subject matter. We worry about the periodic table instead of persistence, spelling instead of self-control.

That's almost certainly a mistake. Given the age in which we live, it makes no sense to obsess over the memorization of facts that can be looked up on a smartphone. It's not enough to drill kids in arithmetic and hope that they develop delayed gratification by accident. We need to teach the skills of executive function directly and creatively.

If we want our children to succeed in the age of information, we need to give them the mental tools that matter. The world has changed. The mind can't stay the same.