Today’s children are growing up in a new reality, one where they are attuning more to machines and less to people than has ever been true in human history. That’s troubling for several reasons. For one the social and emotional circuitry of a child’s brain learns from contact and conversation with everyone it encounters over the course of a day. These interactions mold brain circuitry; the fewer hours spent with people – and the more staring at a digitized screen -- portends deficits.
All of that digital engagement comes at a cost in face time with real people – the medium where we learn to “read” nonverbals. The new crop of natives in this digital world may be adroit at the keyboard, but can be all thumbs when it comes to reading behavior face-to-face, in real time – particularly in sensing the dismay of others when they stop to read a text in the middle of talking with them.
Then there are the basics of attention, the cognitive muscle that lets us follow a story, see a task through to the end, learn or create. In some ways the endless hours young people spend staring at electronic gadgets may help them acquire specific cognitive skills. But there are concerns and questions about how those same hours may lead to deficits in core emotional, social, and cognitive skills.
The ingredients of rapport begin with total shared focus between two people, which leads to an unconscious physical synchrony, which in turn generates good feeling. Such a shared focus with the teacher puts a child’s brain in the best mode for learning. Any teacher who has struggled to get a class to pay attention knows that once everyone quiets down and focuses, they can start to comprehend that lesson in history or math.
Rapport demands joint attention -- mutual focus. Our need to make an effort to have such human moments has never been greater, given the ocean of distractions we all navigate daily.
At the third All Things D(igital) conference back in 2005, conference hosts unplugged the WiFi in the main ballroom because of the glow from laptop screens, indicating that those in the audience were not glued to the action onstage. They were away, in a state, as one participant put it of “continuous partial attention,” a mental blurriness induced by an overload of information inputs from the speakers, the other people in the room, and what they were doing on their laptops. To battle such partial focus today, some Silicon Valley workplaces have banned laptops, mobile phones, and other digital tools during meetings.
After not checking her mobile for a while, a publishing executive confesses she gets “a jangly feeling. You miss that hit you get when there’s a text. You know it’s not right to check your phone when you’re with someone, but it’s addictive.” So she and her husband have a pact: “When we get home from work we put our phones in a drawer. If it’s in front of me I get anxious, I’ve just got to check it. But now we try to be more present for each other. We talk.”
Our focus continually fights distractions, both inner and outer. The question is, what are our distractors costing us? An executive at a financial firm tells me, “When I notice that my mind has been somewhere else during a meeting, I wonder what opportunities I’ve been missing right here.”
It’s not just that we’ve developed habits of attention that make us less effective, but that the weight of messages leaves us too little time simply to reflect on what they really mean. All of this was foreseen way back in 1977 by the Nobel-winning economist Herbert Simon. Writing about the coming information-rich world, he warned that what information consumes is “the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention.”
From "Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence." Copyright 2013 Daniel Goleman. Reprinted with permission from HarperCollns Publishers.