Are distracting smartphones making us more stupid? New research suggests that could be the case: When Carnegie Mellon researchers interrupted college students with text messages while they were taking a test, the students had average test scores that were 20 percent lower than the scores of those who took the exam with their phones turned off.
Another study found that students, when left to their own devices, are unable to focus on homework for more than two minutes without turning to web surfing or e-mail. Adults in the workforce can make it to about 11 minutes.
Jennifer Roberts, a professor of the History of Art and Architecture at Harvard, thinks she has a fairly simple solution to help her American art history students appreciate the act of focusing: They must pick any painting, sculpture, or object made by an American artist and stare at it—for three hours.
“They’re usually skeptical at first,” she told me, “but afterwards, they tell me the process was really astonishing, enabling them to see things, make observations, and develop original ideas about the work that never would have occurred otherwise.”
Roberts, herself, has seen the payoffs of strategic patience after her own close analysis of John Singleton Copley’s 1765 painting Boy with a Squirrel (shown above). After spending an hour with the painting, she noticed echoing patterns in the shapes of the boy’s ear and the squirrel’s ruff. After two hours, she got a different insight that Copley likely thought about the impact that his work would have on the London art world when he was painting it.
“What I like so much about this assignment is that it goes right to the heart of the belief that you’ll feel bored if you pay attention to one thing for so long,” said Daniel Willingham, a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia who called focus the “21st century skill students really lack” in this recent blog post. “A lot of time when we turn away from things, we’re missing stuff that will give us a richer understanding of the world.”
Achieving sustained focus on a regular basis is tough when many of us spend our days attending to various buzzing gadgets. Whether this has diminished the mind’s ability to focus has been debated by brain scientists.
“We know there’s plasticity in the brain,” Willingham said, “but we might be in big trouble if our environment could change the brain that dramatically.”
Brown University neuroscientist Dr. Cathy Kerr said studies indicate that we don’t stick with one activity for as long as we did in the past, and it’s likely causing subtle brain changes.
On the flip side, practicing sustained attention every day can also result in subtle changes to the brain—in a beneficial way.
Formal meditation, where people learn to focus on their breathing, can lead to better control over “their attentional spotlight,” where it’s placed and how well it’s maintained, said Kerr who has conducted meditation studies. This can reduce negative ruminating thoughts in people who are depressed and help increase a sense of calmness when encountering ordinary stresses such as a delayed flight or broken household appliance.
While you may not have time to stare at a painting for three hours every day—you should try it at least once—you can probably find 10 to 15 minutes to study an object of beauty.
It shouldn’t be an image on your computer but something you’re “really confronting in the flesh,” Roberts said, to examine its texture, color, smell, and how light plays off of it.
Willingham takes a walk outside every day, without any electronic devices, to observe the sights and sounds of his natural surroundings.
Spending several minutes watching a woodpecker hack into a tree stump or water tumbling over rocks in a stream helps increase meta-awareness. “You develop a curiosity and tend to create a new story about the world,” Kerr said, that’s different from a quick dismissive glance.
Feeling the reward from the focused activity will likely encourage you to do it again. And you might be discouraged from grazing over the latest entertainment news or status updates from your friends if you recognize that it’s just a time suck yielding few real insights.
“One of the ways I’ve managed to reduce my distractions,” Kerr said, “is by asking myself each time I’m about to distract myself whether that particular activity is salient to me; 90 percent of the time it isn’t.”Deborah Kotz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @debkotz2.