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The Inquisition by Ronan McDonnell - Contents Page
The Inquisition by Ronan McDonnell - Semper Quarens - Always Looking

Pay Attention!

For some time now we have… Sorry, what was I saying? Oh yeah, for some time now we have had dire warnings about our attention spans.

Okay enough crap jokes; through the nineties we heard worrying tales of the MTV generation’s inabilities to retain information and their problems sticking with anything which taxed (them) mentally, at least beyond the fifteen second sound-bite. Well, things haven’t gotten any better for us as online media continue to batter us into being of possessors of mental acuity that would make aquarium dwellers embarrassed.


Still there? Well, the Inquisition congratulates you, intrepid reader. Maggie Jackson, the american jouranlist and author of Distracted: The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age, would also be proud of you.


It is her contention that we are bombarding ourselves with so much information that offers instant gratification that we have lost the ability to explore information – why read an encyclopoedia when you can Google something? There may be good reason why this is such a tempting approach.

Hunter Gatherer Responses

There is a theory that men, in particular, have kept a residual response from our earliest ancestors which makes us scan the literal and proverbial horizons for anything distracting. Anything out of place could have been a threat or food source and as a result we looked beyond what was static and right in front of us. Distraction, according to the theory, is hard-wired into us.

Over time, though, we have learnt the benefits of prolonged attentive thought. We have developed our attention spans so that we could master the world. Scientists define a triumvirate of cognitive functions that form our attention spans; orienting, responsiveness and executive attention. These are respectively how are brain tells our senses to scan inputs, how much effort it decides to devote to the endeavour and how it processes information received.

Now and Next

Modern society, argues Maggie Jackson, has evolved in such a way that we are constantly bombarded with new information and required to formulate immediate responses. According to Jackson, information workers (not sure who they are exactly, but sure, anyway…) on average change the focus of their tasks every three minutes.

In essence, Jackson argues that our loud, brash and distracting world is not conducive to creativity and brain development. Her interview in Wired magazine ends on an ominous note:


“Dark ages are times of forgetting, when the advancements of the past are underutilized. If we forget how to use our powers of deep focus, we’ll depend more on black-and-white thinking, on surface ideas, on surface relationships. That breeds a tremendous potential for tyranny and misunderstanding. The possibility of an attention-deficient future society is very sobering. “

She might be right – after all, The Inquisition has provided lovely big pullquotes to distract you because large bodies of text are too daunting for lowly readers!


According to Wired, further research by others has led to the conclusion that, “when we go online, we enter an environment that promotes cursory reading, hurried and distracted thinking, and superficial learning.
Maggie Jackson, author of "Distracted"

Distracted: The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age, Maggie Jackson, Prometheus Books, 2008
Maggie Jackson interviewed by Wired Magazine

This article was posted by on Tuesday, March 24th, 2009 at 04:04.
It is archived in Culture, Health, Science and tagged , , .

2 Responses to Pay Attention!

  1. Pingback: The Time to Look | The Inquisition

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