Tag Archives: neuroscience

In Which I Worry About My Attention Span

I started this blog—ages ago, in internet time—to get my brain working, force myself to react to what I read, and put my thoughts in order. But I’ve never kept it up for very long at a stretch, and longer essays—“longer” in blog terms, anyway—are rare.

I feel like my attention span has atrophied. I’ve noticed I’m not as good a reader as I used to be. Not that I don’t still read quite a lot compared to most people—I finished 83 books last year, more than one a week. And have no problem with reading comprehension. But I read in bits. I’ve always had more than one book going at any given time, but these days I have several, and I rarely sit down with them for sustained periods: I sit through ten or twenty pages and my brain is off on something else.

Mind you, that’s still healthier than the voracious-but-stupid way I read when I was 12 or 13. Often I’d get through a book in a day, but I didn’t retain much. There are books I know I read around that time that left no trace in my memory. I suspect there are others I no longer recall having read at all. These days I remember what I read. But I suspect I’d absorb it even better if I could get back to the middle path I took in my late teens and early twenties: more than a couple of days, less than a couple of weeks.

Continue reading In Which I Worry About My Attention Span


The _New York Times_ has an article on habit. Specifically on developing new habits. I have habits I’d like to get rid of myself. Or not so much *habits*, exactly, as a deep, deep rut. I spend hours every day with my brain on automatic pilot and I’m trying to take the controls a little more often. So this looked interesting:

>[B]rain researchers have discovered that when we consciously develop new habits, we create parallel synaptic paths, and even entirely new brain cells, that can jump our trains of thought onto new, innovative tracks.


>But don’t bother trying to kill off old habits; once those ruts of procedure are worn into the hippocampus, they’re there to stay. Instead, the new habits we deliberately ingrain into ourselves create parallel pathways that can bypass those old roads.

Unfortunately it’s a Business section article, stuffed with inane marketbabble from people like Dawna Markova, “an executive change consultant for Professional Thinking Partners.” Wouldn’t it be great if American culture could break whatever dysfunctional habit leads us to think “executive change consultant” is in any way a sane job description?

The lede promises an exploration of the neuroscience of habit. The further you read the more obvious it gets that this is a shopworn veneer over an ad for Markova’s and business partner M. J. Ryan’s books and consultancy. Is that a press release I see, peering out from behind the faux woodgrain shelf liner?

Anyway. Back to the oversimplified neuroscience:

>Researchers in the late 1960s discovered that humans are born with the capacity to approach challenges in four primary ways: analytically, procedurally, relationally (or collaboratively) and innovatively. At puberty, however, the brain shuts down half of that capacity, preserving only those modes of thought that have seemed most valuable during the first decade or so of life.

The capacity to approach challenges sounds kind of like the alignment system from the Dungeons and Dragons games. (My level 3 ranger is analytically relational!)

(Incidentally, did you know that if you do a Google search on the single word “alignment,” that Wikipedia article is the second link in the search results? Yes, it scares me, too.)

Here the article gets into standardized testing. Our cultural romance with standardized testing baffles me; we took the damn things all the time when I was a kid. I get the impression that No Child Left Behind encourages schools to arrange their curricula around maximizing their test scores. I sometimes suspect we’re raising a generation of dull, regimented multiple-choice drones who understand nothing more important than the best way to fill in bubbles with a number two pencil.

And so does the _New York Times_. The article hypothesizes that we spend so much time training students to take standardized tests that their brains order themselves around the kinds of thought useful for standardized testing–“analysis and procedure,” in consultant-speak. What’s interesting is that this article, in advising business types, automatically assumes the reader is “an analytical or procedural thinker”–the kind of thinking they associate with standardized bubble-fillers. Maybe if I were a more innovative thinker I wouldn’t have bothered reading this far down.