Children are often asked to focus and pay attention, but they’re not always explicitly told how to do it or given opportunities to practice. Adults are often expected to multitask and juggle many responsibilities, and yet these behaviors are costing us productivity and increasing our stress. Fast Company magazine suggests not multitasking in order to increase our ability to focus. It cites A.J. Marsden, assistant professor of human services and psychology at Beacon College, who claims that “multitasking decreases concentration by as much as 20% to 40%. Brain activation is reduced up to 53% when we are asked to perform dual tasks versus being able to devote our attention to just one task.” Yet most of us are probably in the habit of doing several things at the same time.
While we are trying to juggle numerous responsibilities, we’re also being exposed to competing sources of stimulus. Jon Kabat-Zinn, in Coming to our Senses, explains that we’re often “perpetually preoccupied, lost in our mind, absorbed in our thoughts, obsessed with the past or the future, consumed with our plans and our desires, diverted by our need to be entertained, driven by our expectations, fears…. And therefore we are amazingly out of touch.”
We are out of touch with our bodies, with our surroundings, and perhaps even the task at hand. People often drive home without remembering if they stopped at all the stop signs, or they find themselves in a middle of a conversation they have lost track of, or, in the case of students, they may be unable to answer a question after having their names called [MS3] repeatedly. This is because we often don’t even realize that we’ve lost focus.
Because we are constantly bombarded with stimuli and information that our minds need to sift through, it is crucial that we bring awareness to what’s distracting us and how it’s impacting us. For example, while phones and other technologies allow us to easily interact with each other (increasingly via a screen), they also can cause a lot of stress. All our devices are having an impact on our attention span and our ability to focus.
So how much time is that for the average adult? A study of Canadian media consumption set out to answer this question. Time magazine reports that “researchers in Canada surveyed 2,000 participants and studied the brain activity of 112 others using electroencephalograms (EEGs)…. [They] found that since the year 2000 (or about when the mobile revolution began) the average attention span dropped from 12 seconds to eight seconds.” According to the article, that’s one second less than the attention span of a goldfish! But what’s more concerning is that the study linked the changes in our brain to the new technologies it’s being exposed to.
The study also “confirmed generational differences for mobile use; for example, 77% of people aged 18 to 24 responded ‘yes’ when asked, ‘When nothing is occupying my attention, the first thing I do is reach for my phone,’ compared with only 10% of those over the age of 65.” In other words, our children’s lifestyle habits and choices are being influenced by technology use, which impacts the way our kids focus and pay attention. Read the NPR article “Heavy Screen Time Rewires Young Brains, for Better and Worse” for arguments on how the ways our children’s brains are changing might be helping and hurting them.
What’s clear is that we have to develop the skill of paying attention and focusing. Mindfulness can support us in doing this in two ways: It can help us notice when we’ve lost focus and have become distracted, and it can help us then place our attention where we want. These are two distinct skills that have to be developed concurrently.
Willoughby Britton and Ariell Sydnor, in their chapter “Neurobiological Models of Meditation Practices: Implications for Applications with Youth” in Teaching Mindfulness Skills to Kids and Teens, describe several approaches to support students’ mental health.
One of these is focused attention (FA) practice. It “involves intentionally directing and sustaining attention on a chosen object or anchor of attention (e.g., the breath, a visual object, a sound) while ‘deselecting’ other stimuli…. The meditator’s goal is to remain anchored, monitor the mind’s wandering, and return attention to the object when the mind has wandered.” These practices can help us and our kids practice focusing and train our brains to be able to manage distraction by first noticing we’re distracted and then bringing our focus back to where we want it to be sustained. Anchoring our attention to our sense experience is a simple and effective way to help us and our students focus.
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ABOUT ARGOS GONZÁLEZ:
Argos Gonzalez is a teacher, lecturer, and mindfulness and yoga instructor. He has 13 years of experience teaching high school in the Bronx and teaches pre-service and in-service teachers at Hunter College School of Education in NY. Argos is certified through both Mindful Schools and Little Flower Yoga (LFY), and currently serves as the director of professional development for The School Yoga Project, a program of LFY. For more information about Little Flower Yoga and The School Yoga Project, visit www.littlefloweryoga.com. Contact Argos by email at email@example.com.
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