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Your Attention Please

It is curious that in the article “Inquiring Minds” (January Bulletin), you write that scientist John Seely Brown “observes that the teens’ attention span ranged between 30 seconds and five minutes, which [Brown writes] ‘parallels that of top managers who operate in a world of fast context switching. So the short attention span of today's kids may turn out to be far from dysfunctional for future work worlds.’”

Yet in “The Dances of Adele Diamond,” [also January Bulletin] cognitive neuroscientist Adele Diamond ’74 is quoted as saying: "Executive function skills, such as sustained attention, are stifled by video games and TV programs that assume short attention spans."

Perhaps Brown and Diamond should communicate.

Dick Kirschner '49
Albuquerque, N. M.

We asked Diamond for her reply:
I do not agree with Brown. A short attention span is never an advantage. You want to able to stay focused and attend for a long time when you need to. For example, if you are listening to a report on how your company has been doing or the results of your latest medical tests, you don't want to space out in the middle—you want to be able to stay present.

You also want to be able to quickly, smoothly, and easily switch from one thing to another, and back and forth if needed—but that’s because you choose to switch, not because you can't stay focused.

It’s one thing if you choose to switch between a call on Line 1, a call on Line 2, and a person in your office. It's another if your attention keeps getting grabbed by a beep for a new email, a new text message that pops up, or when the screen changes to reveal a different news story. Most teens are having their attention grabbed, rather than their learning to prioritize and choose to allocate 15 minutes here, three minutes there, an hour here, etc.

Adele Diamond ’74
Vancouver, B.C.

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