We can only pay attention to one thing at a time. For years, you have heard that we all need to multitask and you may have convinced yourself that you can do it it pretty well.
It’s not so bad to listen to music while you work – a distraction, but minimal. But add in checking your email and messages, watching a video on Facebook and all suffer.
The push to multitask is being reversed. We all know now that anything else you do while driving hurts your focus on driving and can be deadly. Listening to the radio, singing along or talking to a passenger may be tolerable distractions, but texting, looking at a screen for your audio settings, looking at the sites as they are passing, reading signs, studying the GPS map, drinking or eating, and fumbling in your pocket or pocketbook for your ringing phone are all very dangerous.
More and more research shows this to be true: We all like to think that we can multi-task and do all the tasks well, but we can’t. And when it comes to paying attention, who is better, men or women? Turns out, neither.
Here is a simple attention test. Watch this short video of two basketball teams, one wearing black and the other in white, passing basketballs between them and count the number of passes made by the white team.
Recent neuroscience research tells us that rather than doing tasks simultaneously well, what we might be good at is just being able to switch tasks quickly. But that stop/start process in the brain wastes time and degrades our focus on both tasks.
When you watched the video, how may passes did you see? Actually, the researchers didn’t care much about that part of this experiment known as the “gorilla test.” Psychologists Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons created the video to see how many people saw a woman wearing a gorilla suit walk onto the scene, thump her chest several times and then walk off. She is there in the middle of the video for about 9 seconds but only 50% of viewers spot the gorilla.
Why? Because when you are told to concentrate on one thing, your mind tends not to see other things. You were counting passes from one team and paid less attention to other things.
Daniel Simons says:
“Indeed, most of us are unaware of the limits of our attention—and therein lies the real danger. For instance, we may talk on the phone and drive because we are mistakenly convinced that we would notice a sudden event, such as a car stopping short in front of us.
Inattentional blindness does have an upside. Our ability to ignore distractions around us allows us to retain our focus. Just don’t expect your partner to be charitably disposed when your focus on the television renders her or him invisible.”
This shift in our attitudes toward multitasking probably tracks with an increased interest in many forms of mindfulness training, and an increase in the number of people identified as having attention deficit disorders. We know our attention is lousy. We are easily distracted. And most of us want to do something about the problem.
The term “Attention-Deficit Disorder” (ADD, ADHD) has only been around since 1980 when it was introduced in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Of course, people have had the symptoms for a whole lot longer. A condition that appears to be similar to ADHD was described by Hippocrates around 400 BC.
But the term Nature-Deficit Disorder is not only newer than ADHD but a lot less familiar to people. As with ADHD in its early years, some people will question if it’s a “real” disorder. I was teaching middle school in the 1980s and students diagnosed as being ADHD became the topic on many days and discussions among teachers, counselors, parents and doctors often got pretty heated.
As a disorder, it is not recognized in any of the medical manuals for mental disorders, such as the ICD or the DSM. Louv is not a doctor. He is a writer and child advocate. But I agree with his general premise that people, and especially the younger generations, are more out of touch with the natural world than earlier generations. Of course, that may have been true for every generation since the industrial age began, but it seems to have accelerated as we entered the information age.
Louv claims that one cause for this phenomenon is parental fears about letting kids explore the natural world (especially on their own, as I certainly did as a kid) which has given them restricted access to natural areas. Unsupervised play has decreased over the years and parentally-sanctioned and supervised play is more the norm.
Add to this the lure of the screens – TV, film, and video on phones, tablets, computers and the less-viewed big screen of the family room.
In Last Child in the Woods, he expresses his fears that our children are increasingly disconnected from the natural world.
I agree, though I don’t go as far as the author who then links children’s disconnect from nature directly to attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, stress, depression and anxiety disorders and childhood obesity. Still, I can see with my own sons that exposing kids to nature can be a kind of therapy for a busy world.
We tried as parents to get our kids hiking, swimming, camping and wandering both local woods and national and state parks. I encouraged unstructured creative play. The boys were a bit out of it because we severely limited their exposure to video games and discouraged mindless television viewing from one channel to another.
Both of us were public school teachers then and we chose not to work summers so that we could have 10 weeks with the kids. No summer teen tours or sleepaway camps. We did the town pool and summer sports and Cub and Boy Scouts and a 4-H equestrian club which were all more structured, but there were lots of days spent playing at the parks and in the woods and building things in the backyard and basement.
We lived in suburbia, but I tried to connect the boys to nature by teaching them animal tracking and catch-and-release fishing, planting flowers and vegetables, learning about the stars and constellations, the Moon and planets, and knowing the names of plants and trees. They learned about other cultures and nature, like American Indian beliefs and Buddhism.
I read books on kids and nature and books by people like Jon Young and Tom Brown not only to help me teach the boys, but to help me reconnect with the natural world that I loved so much as a kid.
I spent a good part of my childhood playing Huck Finn as best I could in a suburban town, but I can’t say that the generations that came of age in the 50s or 60s were steeped in the natural world. Kids of the 1950s were more in touch than kids of 2000, as kids of the 1900s were more in touch than those of the 1950s and so on.
Most of my sons’ friends were not doing these things with their families. They went away to camp, visited Disneyworld and took vacations to far off places. There came a time when my boys realized it wasn’t adding anything to their cool quotient to talk about our summer activities.
The book is already a decade old and Louv cites a study that reported that eight-year-olds could identify Pokémon characters far more easily than they could name “otter, beetle, and oak tree.” I’m sure if you update the references, the results would be the same today.
Did it work for my sons? One of my sons was diagnosed as being ADD and, though he compensated well on his own, it stressed him out. While one of them today (in their late twenties) is into camping, fishing, hiking, boating and hunting, the other is a city person who prefers a nice beach resort. I wouldn’t say that the exposure to the natural world is any guarantee of an unstressed, focused, healthy child, teen and adult. Still, nature can teach kids science in a fun way and those activities nurture their creativity, critical thinking and problem-solving skills. I also was very much in favor of my kids seeing themselves as future stewards of the environment.
I know that there are some good reasons for the lack of unstructured outdoor play that some of us grew up doing not being the norm these days. There are plenty of fears (both founded & unfounded) of predators in nature and even more so of the human kind.
We have more limited access to public lands (because of development or fear of lawsuits, insurance costs and to prevent vandalism) than when I was growing up.
As a parent, I didn’t have to deal with smartphones and broadband. My boys grew up with an Apple IIe computer with no hard drive and big floppy disks and a 1200 baud telephone line modem. The number of attractive indoor activities has increased many times.
It saddens me to go to the local park that I visited with my sons and see that there are no longer things like the monkey bars in the designer playground. It is safer but less interesting. Even the dirt is gone, replaced by a rubberized something. There’s a wooded area and small creek just at the edge of the park, but even if kids are drawn to it, most parents pull them back.
Last Child in the Woods is worth a read for parents and teachers if you are looking for an action plan for personal change. The book’s subtitle is “Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder” but I think a good number of my fellow adults need saving too. Most of don’t need to be given a listing of the problems in the world, but it would be good to take from the book some ways to, if not cure, then ameliorate them.
It is really getting to me how many things I have undone. It doesn’t help that I am big on making To Do lists. I need those lists to keep track of things, but they also act as reminders of what I have not gotten done.
And lots of things never make it to the lists. The books waiting unread and the stack of books with bookmarkers in them that are partially read. Magazines unread. I even started to tear out articles that I wanted to read so that I could recycle the rest and have less confronting me. Now, I have a wire basket full of torn out articles.
My mind is always wandering. The abbot at a Zen monastery that I used to attend told me that I have “monkey mind” – a mind that is like a monkey hopping about from limb to limb in the jungle.
Usually, we can blame a lack of concentration on being too busy, feeling stressed out or being overtired. But lately I have been less busy, not very stressed and better rested and it hasn’t helped the attention or the To Do lists.
I’ve tried things. Yeah, medication. That was a bust. I tried meditation and mindfulness and ways to increase my awareness of the world around me. I really do try to pay attention whether I’m typing something for a blog post or on one of many rambles through the woods.
I was a kid in a time when there was no such diagnosis as Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). You were just a kid in school who was talked too much and didn’t pay attention. Later, the term “hyper(active)” come into use, but it was often diagnosed as a kid who ate too much sugar.
Symptoms? Impatience, distractibility, forgetfulness, impulsiveness, and having trouble finishing tasks.
I know that I’m supposed to shoot for at least 30 minutes of cardiovascular activity three to five times a week. My walking doesn’t cut it because I am so distracted by passing sights and sounds that my speed is inconsistent.
I see these phrases like how to “reboot” your brain, as if it was a laptop and all you needed to do was hit the power button. You need to “rewire” your brain. Focus, organization, time-management and follow-through. Life as business practice.
A diagnosis of ADHD is a nice thing to blame instead of blaming your own inadequacies that make it impossible to get organized, to stick to a job, to keep an appointment, to concentrate. But it doesn’t make things get better.
I actually have found blogging and setting myself deadlines to write here and on a few other blogs to be a great focusing exercise. But this post is done. Time to click “submit.” Then I can focus on my breath and jump from limb to limb like the good little monkey I have always been.
His subtitle references a buzz term for parents of K-12 children, but the research he cites shows that even though “thoughtful exposure of youngsters to nature can… be a powerful form of therapy for attention-deficit disorder and other maladies” that kids aren’t getting it as “therapy” or as the normal course of growing up.
He compares a childhood of years past when kids were hiking, swimming, surfing and wandering their local woods in unstructured play, to today’s summer teen tours, computer and weight-loss camps and hanging around a pool or just watching DVDs, texting and surfing the Net.
I’ll admit to having spent a good part of my own childhood playing Huck Finn as best I could in a suburban town, but I can’t say that the generations that came of age in the 50s or 60s were steeped in the natural world. Kids of the 1950s were more in touch than kids of 2000, as kids of the 1900s were more in touch than those of the 1950s and so on.
My own kids growing up in the 80s & 90s were exposed to things only because I wanted them to fish, camp, build forts in the woods, ride horses, catch salamanders and frogs, join Cub & Boy Scouts and 4-H, and collect leaves as I had done. Their friends were not doing that with their families, and there came a time when my boys realized it wasn’t adding anything to their cool quotient to talk about it.
Louv cites a study that reported that eight-year-olds could identify Pokémon characters far more easily than they could name “otter, beetle, and oak tree.”
So, he went to parents, teachers, researchers, environmentalists and others to find out how we might return kids to an awareness of and appreciation for the natural world.
There’s the obvious argument that nature can teach kids science in a fun way and that activities nurture their creativity, critical thinking and problem-solving skills. But, he is equally concerned with trying to assure that there will be future stewards of the environment.
I know that there are some good reasons for the lack of unstructured outdoor play that some of us grew up doing: fears (both founded & unfounded) of predators in nature and of the human kind, limited access to public lands (because of development or fear of lawsuits, insurance costs and to prevent vandalism), the increase in attractive indoor activities and overworked parents.
Louv argues (and I’m sure this aspect is controversial) that there is a link from children’s alienation from nature, to attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, stress, depression and anxiety disorders, and childhood obesity.
It sadden me to go to the local park and see that there are no longer things like the monkey bars in the designer playgrounds that are safer but less interesting – even the dirt is gone, replaced by a rubberized something. There’s a wooded area and small creek just at the edge of the park, but even if kids are drawn to it, parents pull them back.
The book is a good one for modern parents (and teachers) to read as long as they see it as an action plan for personal change, and not just as a listing of the problems. Buy a copy for a new parent.