Monday, June 17, 2013

Now You See It: How the Brain Science of Attention Will Transorm the Way We Live, Work, and Learn

By Cathy N. Davidson

Book review by Richard L. Weaver II, Ph.D.

Twenty-nine pages of outstanding notes (pp. 301-330), an appendix of 17 "Twenty-first Century Literacies—a Checklist" (pp. 297-298), and an accessible, readable narrative full of interesting, engaging, and appropriate examples/illustrations, made this book, for me, a delight.

Of course some of the information on neurogenesis, language acquisition, multitasking, and memory can be found elsewhere, but I found Davidson’s ability to draw together a great deal of divergent research (from the fields of brain science, psychology, education, management science, information technology, and more) into a coherent set of ideas both fascinating and illuminating. You would expect this from a person with an English background as well as backgrounds in both interdisciplinary studies and the information sciences. Her eclecticism is well demonstrated and appreciated throughout the book.

Davidson’s discussion of the history of "attention blindness" is interesting, but how she draws conclusions from that discussion to its effect on us in an environment in which blogging, tweeting, and texting is predominant, is instructive and important.

When I discussed the topic of listening with my students, I would remind them that "only one thing can be predominant in your attention span at any one moment." Attention to one thing is likely to last a mere 7-10 seconds, so attention is constantly shifting from one predominant thing to another. This, of course, not only affects one’s ability to listen to another person, it also affects one’s ability to concentrate. With so many distractions available, it is difficult to focus solely on what one are working on at the moment. Even when concentrating, the longest average time we can focus on a single object without diverting our attention is about 30 seconds. Multitasking, then, is more about our ability to shift our focus of attention (often rapidly) then actually concentrating on several things at the same time — which is really impossible. That’s why texting and driving is so dangerous!

I think her primary question, how can we change our schools and workplace situations so that they not just better accommodate modern technological advances, but make them better at facing future challenges and the ongoing changes that are occurring rapidly, is a proper question to be asking. Changes must take place now, and they need to be more than merely cosmetic, they need to be dramatic.

Davidson is a fine writer, and in this book she communicates directly with readers, and she includes readers in her thinking with questions and comments that make them feel part of the process of discovery.

I liked her discussion about "The Map is Not the Territory," from Alford Korzybski’s work (although unidentified) in general semantics as well as her views on perception and its limits. I discuss these, as well, in my book on Communicating Effectively, 10/e (McGraw-Hill, 2012), but Davidson’s emphasis on how we get stuck in our patterns is especially important and relevant to her information on "attention blindness" — and how important (especially for a broad public readership) learning is — as well as the lack of importance (or relevance) of instincts. Great information.

Her information (statistics) on games and gaming should be alarming: "Games are unquestionably the single most important cultural form of the digital age. The average gamer in America now spends about ten thousand hours online by the age of twenty-one—about the same amount of time he might spend in school from fifth grade to high school graduation" (p. 146). The use of the male pronoun is important here, for gamers are more likely to be male than female, and the predominance and importance of games is having a direct, negative effect on the development/education of young men who then lack the education, skills, and ability to go on to college, compete satisfactorily for jobs, and obtain the prosperity and riches of the American dream or even a life well lived.

The book is for serious readers, and although, as I mentioned previously, her writing is accessible, the book tends to be full, heavy, and dense at times. This is simply the result of having so much information to share, not that her writing style bogs down at all. (Paragraphs tend to be a bit long, and many words appear on each page.) I think her information, since it is aimed at both schools and the workplace, may be more relevant (of great concern) to school administrators as well as employers, business presidents and CEOs for they tend to be the movers and shakers in our society.

One of the things I like about any book that I favor is how effectively it makes you think. Even if you do not agree with some of her conclusions or with some of the research, there is important information here nonetheless. And her emphasis on "we’re never too old to learn" is encouraging — even motivating. The book is a delight, and I recommend it without hesitation or reservation.





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