05 June 2012


My earliest years were spent on farms.  Some might liken that to growing up in a gulag, but I treasure the experience.  These were the years before television intruded its cyclopian eye into our lives.  Family entertainment included reading, playing cards, and listening to radio news and dramas (radio being a medium which inherently lends itself to the imagination).  My play time was solitary or with neighbor kids who lived a quarter mile away ~ or on the playground at school ~ and we made up our own games.  When alone, I found it natural to immerse myself in a sensory microcosm ~ examining the inner parts of a flower, listening to the earth breathe, watching how submerged weeds undulated in an irrigation canal, or how the motion of cottonwood leaves formed shimmering patterns in the breeze.  Between books, the radio, music, and solo play, I developed a fertile imagination.

My attention shifted outward when we moved to a rural town in northern Montana, when I was about age 11.  School was opening new vistas of thought, and my favorite windows onto the wider world were the public library and the movie theater.  Like most of my peers, I left my home town, went to college, and later moved to larger cities with their museums, orchestras, theaters and restaurants.  But I remain grateful for those early, quiet years in which I learned to observe.

Such mindful attention has become more and more rare in the intervening years, as life has sped up and distractions have multiplied.  Each new generation has a shorter attention span ~ ADHD wasn't even recognized when I was a child, but now the symptoms, the diagnosis, and treatment seem to increase in numbers by an order of magnitude each year.  Young people and even many adults are so plugged into their electronic devices that they are oblivious to the world around them.

The world of research has taken note.  Neuroscientist and science writer Andrea Kuszewski provided a link to a Wall Street Journal article titled How to End the Age of Inattention ~ Reviving the Art of Observation.  The premise is simple.  "Today's signature move is the head swivel.  It is the age of look-then-look-away.  Our average attention span halved in a decade, from 12 to 5 minutes (and that was in 2008).  We miss almost everything.  We text while we walk.  What makes a person stand out now is the ability to look and keep looking.

"But as global competition makes us manic about technology .... we rush past the humanities, the very fields that teach us how and what to notice.  Before lunging for another engineering degree, we should catch our breath, look around.  We need an intervention .... A 'museum intervention' is now mandatory at Yale's School of Medicine for all first-year medical students.  Called Enhanced Observational Skills, the programs asks students to look at and then describe paintings.  The aim?  To improve diagnostic knack .... Each student is assigned a painting, which they examine for 15 minutes, recording all they see.  The group discusses its observations .... The conclusion matters less than the collection of detail.  'We are trying to slow down the students.  They have an urge to come up with a diagnosis immediately and get the right answer.'

" .... a three-year study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association showed that, afterward, [medical students] are 10% more effective at diagnosis.   The program has expanded to include more than 20 medical schools, including Harvard, Columbia and Cornell."

My thought is, of course.  And why not have a class in observation as a requirement for every college degree, every high school graduation, every primary school curriculum?  People are naturally curious, given half a chance.  Channeling that curiosity in a guided setting which provides the time, the encouragement, and the tools for understanding, could only enhance growth and quality of life for people of all ages.  Attention, focus, being in the moment and open to all our senses, are a core part of being fully human.

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