This past week in the New York Times Tim Herrera wrote an article You’re Not Paying Attention, but You Really Should Be in which he gave us tips for noticing the real time events occurring all around us in lieu of staring into our smart phones and PCs all day to the exclusion of most everything else. Among his suggestions, gleaned from the experience of people he knew, were to notice what everyone else overlooks, to take time away from everything in order to engage directly with the world around you, and listening to your own curiosities in order to see where they might lead.
Yes, of course people tend to be so focused on their phones, PCs, and other digital devices that they often barely notice the particulars of the world around them which are part of the stream of life which might carry us to all kinds of interesting places if only we would let it. Yet at the same time, one has to ask the question of how much control we still actually have over our attention spans when we have become so conditioned by our daily, obsessive acquaintance with our digital devices that our physiological brains and working memories have become subservient to large search engines like Google or memory devices like Echo or Alexa.
We have become so used to outsourcing our working memories to Google or Alexa by employing them to provide us with knowledge or information that we do not immediately have at our fingertips that the neuronal pathways of our brains have begun to calcify because they are no longer being used to the degree that they once were. As a result, because our working memories are no longer as sharp as they once were, we can no longer focus on the particulars of our world as effectively simply because our working memories have lost much of their capacity to absorb those particulars.
Being attentive to one’s world necessarily means having the capacity to assimilate one’s experience into something meaningful. And that something meaningful is necessarily to be found in our long-term memories, which allow us to assimilate our present experience into the meaningful experience of our past. That is to say, as our working memories become gutted by memory devices, and by information overload in the digital world, our attention will necessarily not be as focused. For there really is no way to separate the two dynamics of memory and attention, each of them being highly dependent upon the other.
If one wants to pay closer attention to other people, to nature, or to any of the vagaries of daily experience, then one really needs to start by making sure that their working memory is fully intact. And subjecting oneself to daily information overload on the Web or consistently using massive search engines like Google to access knowledge, facts, and information, rather than trying to naturally pull those facts and information out of the neuronal pathways of one’s own working memory is the wrong direction to travel to ensure that one is paying close attention to all of the interesting people, situations, and learning experiences which one might encounter during the course of his or her daily life.
Lyn Lesch’s upcoming book Intelligence in the Digital Age: How the Search for Something Larger May be Imperiled, published by Rowman & Littlefield, will be available this Fall.