This Week in LIS - 6 February 2014

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Headline of the Week: Nicholas Carr – Make Time to Learn to Focus Your Attention

I thoroughly enjoyed the convocation talk that Nicholas Carr offered this morning. He spoke about what a special time this is for our students. A residential liberal arts college experience provides an opportunity and an invitation to separate to a degree from one environment (e.g. hometown, family, high school) and join another. It is a place and a time, specifically designed for gaining knowledge, making intellectual and new personal connections and for contemplating challenging topics finding relationships and connections.

He talked about the primal nature of humans to naturally want to be aware of everything going on around them. One can imagine how important this was to survival of the species. He shared his caution that the hyper connected, constantly interacting, digital, always on, alerting, updating, smart phone under your pillow, electronic virtual world we are also a part of feeds into and off of our primal nature. Just like we naturally seek out salt and sweet and food processors, know and leverage that to make products that can become nearly addictive leading to disease and obesity, our natural tendency to be aware of everything, has consequences; especially in the virtual environment.

A key consequence is that without discipline our actual capability to be attentive and contemplative is diminished. It’s not just a discussion about spending one's time on more or less valuable activities. Physiologically our brains alter when hyper-stimulated with interactiveness and over time this can lead to diminished ability to concentrate and to control our attention. John Medina, a neuroscientist, has written an approachable book called “Brain rules: 12 principles for surviving and thriving at work, home, and school” that provides a good bit of explanation for these phenomena. Carr’s suggestion was to make time to develop and exercise ones ability to concentrate, deep think, and contemplate. He argues it will both provide one an advantage in the workplace, which will show up as productivity and creativity, and will allow for a richer more satisfying life.

A student asked Carr what he does in his life to exercise and develop his ability to concentrate and contemplate. Carr shared some decisions and disciplines he employs to find balance between the value of digital connectedness and the ability to control his attention. This reminded me of a classic I have read a number of times over the years “The road less traveled : a new psychology of love, traditional values, and spiritual growth,” by M. Scott Peck. A key takeaway from this book is that life has difficulties, there are tensions to be balanced and it is important to develop the discipline and the ability to delay gratification to find a level of fulfillment.

Discipline and delayed gratification. LIS is both a purveyor of the digital connectedness that, if over indulged, Carr and Media say, can diminish one’s ability to control attention. LIS is also purveyor of traditions the encourage deep, close reading, quiet time for contemplation, information and materials to enable discovering of connections and a place for students to exercise their maturing ability to control their attention. For example, the third floor of Preus is just such a place to find the quiet space to read, concentrate, contemplate, and practicing and developing the ability to control one's attention. How might we help our students find their balance and help them master the discipline to develop the contemplative mind while enjoyed the benefits of the digital virtual environment?

Suggested Reading/Viewing/Listening:

Brain rules : 12 principles for surviving and thriving at work, home, and school by John Medina

The road less traveled : a new psychology of love, traditional values, and spiritual growth by M. Scott Peck


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