The Hedgehog Review

The Hedgehog Review: Vol. 16 No. 2 (Summer 2014)

Minding Our Minds: A Bibliographical Essay

Jay Tolson

Reprinted from The Hedgehog Review 16.2 (Summer 2014). This essay may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributed for compensation of any kind without prior written permission. Please contact The Hedgehog Review for further details.

The Hedgehog Review

The Hedgehog Review: Summer 2014

(Volume 16 | Issue 2)

Concerns about attention appear to be very much on our minds these days, with many Americans, mostly of the older generations, fearing that it is under siege and possibly approaching a state of catastrophic overload. Even if we are not certain what attention is, at least in any strict scientific sense, we think we have some pretty good ideas about what is driving our minds to distraction. Such factors include ever-rising expectations of individual performance in a fast-moving, highly competitive commercial culture that both cultivates and caters to the citizen-consumer, in large part through increasingly sophisticated electronic media that seem to penetrate every part of our lives.

Articles and books abound about the distractions of everyday modern life, many accompanied by suggestions (from mindfulness meditation to “quiet cars” on trains to apps that limit online activity) for how we might tune out or turn off some of their most powerful disruptive effects. The growing incidence of Americans diagnosed with a condition called attention deficit hyperactivity disorder—ADHD, though still known to most people as ADD—has become not only an alarming medical phenomenon, with more and more adults appearing to join children and adolescents among the ranks of the medicated, but also a kind of metaphor for the plight of all people living in our performance-oriented, media-saturated, multitasking world.

The perception that ADD is the affliction of our times, whether as a neurological condition or a cultural metaphor, has been reinforced by the cascading development and diffusion of our electronic and particularly digital technology. At work or play, in school or at home, in the privacy of our bedrooms or while riding the bus or driving our cars, we are constantly sending and receiving messages, texts, images, bits of this and bits of that, transfixed by the screens and gadgets that deliver them in an endless 24/7 stream of information.

To some degree, concerns about the mentally corrosive aspects of modern life—its tempo, its flashy superficiality, its commercialism, its intellectual rather than emotional tenor, its distracting stimulations—are nothing new. There is a rich tradition of philosophical and social thought extending back to the nineteenth century and including thinkers as diverse as Friedrich Nietzsche and Søren Kierkegaard that laments the “shallowing” of the mind under the pressures of our more urbanized and commercialized modern existence. In his 1903 essay “The Metropolis and Mental Life,” the German sociologist Georg Simmel sounded one of the earlier twentieth-century warnings: “The psychological foundation, upon which the metropolitan individuality is erected, is the intensification of emotional life due to the swift and continuous shift of external and internal stimuli.”

  • Georg Simmel, “The Metropolis and Mental Life,” in The Blackwell City Reader, eds. Gary Bridge and Sophie Watson (Oxford and Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2002), 11–19.

The Elusiveness of Attention

If evidence of the scattered state of our minds has become even more plentiful in recent times, and the various explanations of its causes and consequences ever more urgent, there is as yet little sign that many of us would be willing to alter the conditions of our lives, our obsession with performance, or our love of information gadgetry for something that defies clear definition or pinning down.

“Everyone knows what attention is,” William James famously declared in his Principles of Psychology, first published in 1890. “It is the taking possession by the mind, in clear and vivid form, of one out of what seem several simultaneously possible objects or trains of thought. Focalization, concentration, of consciousness are of its essence. It implies withdrawal from some things in order to deal effectively with others, and is a condition which has a real opposite in the confused, dazed, scatterbrained state which in French is called distraction, and Zerstreutheit in German.”

James did not have the last word on attention, of course, but he may have had the last fully confident word. His many successors in psychology and philosophy and the various subfields of what is now known as neuroscience have in many ways called that definition into question, often on the grounds of its subjective, first-person provenance. If there is any scientific agreement on the concept, it probably boils down to this: Attention is central to our mental lives.

So central, indeed, that many explorers of the mind have come to see it as virtually inseparable from consciousness. Not that this helps pin down the character of attention, since consciousness itself is so elusive. And even if we had a firmer, more widely agreed upon sense of what consciousness is, its relationship with attention would still remain fraught with questions.

Many of those questions are tackled, but never resolved, by the contributors to Attention: Philosophical and Psychological Essays (2011). Can we be conscious of something we are not paying attention to? Or are we conscious only of those things we are attending to? And can we attend to something if we are not conscious of it? Confusingly enough, scientists have devised various procedurally sound experiments demonstrating that each of the above is possibly the case.

To complicate matters further, notes philosopher Christopher Mole of the University of British Columbia, no single theory of attention appears to be able to do justice to the various things attention is supposed to explain:

“If attention figures in all sorts of perceptual phenomena, in all sorts of actions and behaviors, and also in reflective goal-directed thinking, then (1) invoking attention in the explanation of these phenomena ends up telling us nothing very much about them; and (2) the explanation of attention itself turns out to be a task scarcely smaller than the explanatory project of psychology as a whole. We can call this piece of explanatory awkwardness the predicament of explanatory over-burdening.”

  • William James, The Principles of Psychology (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1981).
  • Christopher Mole, Declan Smithies, and Wayne Wu, eds., Attention: Philosophical and Psychological Essays. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011).

What Kind of Disorder?

With so many unresolved questions—questions that should rightly make us ponder the explanatory limits of experimental science in dealing with concepts such as consciousness, mind, awareness, and attention—perhaps we should turn to the wisdom of the ancients, in this case Augustine, and satisfy ourselves with thinking about attention in the way he said he thought about time: “If no one asks of me, I know; if I wish to explain to him who asks, I know not.”

Going this way brings us back to something close to James’s experience-based definition, a useful heuristic that allows us to move, pragmatically, between thinking of attention either as a mental process (for example, what is called “executive control”) or as the product of certain mental processes—“as a faculty,” in James’s words, “or as a resultant.”

Thinking about attention in such a way is particularly helpful when we think about it as a cultural problem. Even in relation to America’s epidemic of ADHD, for example, a healthy awareness of the indeterminacy of attention should alert us both to the inadequacy of strictly biologistic explanations of the disorder and to the strong likelihood that culture plays a part in the rising incidence of people being treated for the symptoms associated with it (the “holy trinity” of which are poor attention, poor self-control, and excessive activity). According to the best recent study, some 4.8 million Americans used medications (usually Adderall or Ritalin) for the condition in 2012, a 36 percent increase over the number who used it 2008, with the most striking increase among women between 26 and 34. (Adolescent boys 12 to 18 still lead all age and gender groups, with almost one in ten taking some kind of medication.) The fact that no other modern industrial or postindustrial society comes close to America’s numbers explains why even some physicians feel wary about overmedicalization. There are good reasons to suspect that the condition may have as much do with our performance-obsessed culture as with neurons, particularly when we hear about the ever-rising expectations and competitiveness in childrearing practices, schools, and the modern workplace.

Though published in 1998, Running on Ritalin: A Physician Reflects on Children, Society, and Performance in a Pill remains a valuable reflection on the challenges of diagnosing and treating the disorder. Lawrence H. Diller, a pediatrician and family therapist with extensive clinical experience and much good sense, laces his accounts of specific cases with shrewd commentary on the need to understand how the demands of our culture may be driving too many Americans to medicate their children or themselves: “As competition on every level intensifies, our preoccupations as a culture increasingly center on performance. And our children, whether we realize it or not, have been serving as a proving ground for the premise of medicating to enhance performance.”

  • Lawrence H. Diller, M.D., Running on Ritalin: A Physician Reflects on Children, Society, and Performance in a Pill (New York: Bantam Books, 1998).
  • Lawrence H. Diller, Remembering Ritalin: A Doctor and Generation Rx Reflect on Life and Psychiatric Drugs (New York: Perigee, 2011).
  • “Turning Attention to ADHD: U.S. Medication Trends for Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder,” (St. Louis: Express Scripts, March 2014), accessed May 5, 2014,

Distracting Minds

Add to performance anxiety the pressure of too much information, much of it merely distracting or mindlessly diverting, and the cultural dimensions of our attentional deficits ramify. In his dark jeremiad, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business (1985), the late media theorist Neil Postman warned that Americans were less likely to end up in the oppressive authoritarian state of George Orwell’s imagining than in Aldous Huxley’s grim dystopia, stupefied and subjugated by endlessly diverting technologies. As Postman noted, in Brave New World Revisited, Huxley worried that opponents of tyranny had “failed to take into account man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions.”

Postman’s book appeared almost 30 years ago, well in advance of the World Wide Web, but what he said about the distracting stupefactions of dumbed-down TV still resonates among more recent readers of his tract, readers for whom iPhones and tablets, texting and tweeting, are everyday necessities. (For comments of such readers, see the introduction to the twentieth-anniversary edition of the book.)

There have, of course, been scores of books and articles addressing the newer media’s effects on our minds, perhaps none quite so singlehandedly provocative as the article “Is Google Making Us Stupid,” published in a 2008 issue of The Atlantic. The author, technology guru Nicholas Carr, argued that we pay a high price for the new internet technology that brings us almost any information with only a few taps on the keyboard:

“As the media theorist Marshall McLuhan pointed out in the 1960s, media are not just passive channels of information. They supply the stuff of thought, but they also shape the process of thought. And what the Net seems to be doing is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation. My mind now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles. Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski.”

In that essay and the subsequent book-length treatment of his theme, The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains (2010), Carr made the somewhat deterministic case that modes of information delivery affect deep mental structure and even, by rerouting neural pathways, the brain itself.

If some of Carr’s neuroscientific claims struck many readers as overdrawn, his argument popularized a larger intellectual debate that both preceded and followed his Atlantic article, with one side largely embracing the diagnosis of intellectual decline through distraction and trivialization and the other not only dismissing such alarmism but also finding much to praise about the new information and communication environment. So for every agonized Mark Bauerlein, whose book The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future appeared in the same year as Carr’s essay, there was an equally hopeful Steven Johnson insisting, in the words of his 2005 book’s title, that Everything Bad Is Good For You: How Today’s Popular Culture Is Actually Making Us Smarter.

Much of this was simply a debate between radically differing assumptions. For Bauerlein, a professor of English at Emory University, the digital onslaught signaled the death of high culture, of which he is manifestly, by training and preference, a custodian. His ammunition derived from studies such as the one he conducted while a director of research at the National Endowment for the Arts, including “Reading at Risk: A Survey of Literary Reading in America.” Johnson, by contrast, brought a geekish sensibility to the table, insisting that complex video games and the elliptical plots of many contemporary TV programs stretched the mental agility of those who engaged with them. For Johnson, the “cognitive work” elicited by popular culture was at least as important as the intellectual skills associated with mastery of canonical works.

  • Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business (New York: Viking, 1985).
  • Nicholas Carr, The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains (New York: W.W. Norton, 2010).
  • Mark Bauerlein, The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future (Or, Don’t Trust Anyone Under 30) (New York: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Penguin, 2008).
  • Steven Johnson, Everything Bad Is Good For You: How Today’s Popular Culture Is Actually Making Us Smarter (New York: Riverhead Books, 2005).

Coping or Pushing Back

Since most people are unwilling to adjudicate firmly in favor of either of those positions, they settle for living somewhere between them, granting themselves and their children at least partial citizenship in the “brave new world” of high-tech offerings while hoping to limit some of its more corrosive effects on mind and spirit, not to mention family and community. Catering to such balancers is an expanding advice literature with titles like The Distraction Addiction: Getting the Information You Need and the Communication You Want, Without Enraging Your Family, Annoying Your Colleagues, and Destroying Your Soul. The author of this generously subtitled book, Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, a historian of science associated with a Silicon Valley-based think tank called Strategic Business Insights, provides both behavioral and technological tips for making you a happier, healthier netizen. His chapter headings—“Breathe” and “Simplify” are among the seven imperatives leading to the transformative “Eight Steps to Contemplative Computing”—put one in mind of Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, the ne plus ultra of modern advice manuals.

Indeed, Pang’s overriding concern with fostering mindful engagement with the social and physical world through new technologies resonates with a growing mindfulness movement, spearheaded in part by an interesting alliance of spiritual seekers (notably Arianna Huffington) and high-tech CEOs. These advocates of “digital detoxification,” who host conferences with titles like “Wisdom 2.0,” invoke an ancient Asian spiritual “technology,” mindfulness meditation, to counter the scattering effects of our newest information technologies. (In the same spirit, the May 2014 issue of Shambhala Sun offers a collection of essays on the “real problem with distraction,” promising “Buddhism’s deeper take on a modern obsession.”)

Benign though all this may seem, one of our more thoughtful culture critics, Evgeny Morozov, author of To Save Everything, Click Here, rightly questions the motives of certain evangelists of unplugging in an article in the February 23, 2014, issue of The New Republic:

“So far, our debate about distraction has hinged on the assumption that the feelings of anxiety and personal insecurity that we experience when interacting with social media are the natural price we pay for living in what some technology pundits call the “attention economy.” But what if this economy is not as autonomous and self-regulating as we are lead to believe?…We must subject social media to the kind of scrutiny that has been applied to the design of gambling machines in Las Vegas casinos. As Natasha Dow Schüll shows in her excellent book Addiction by Design: Machine Gambling in Las Vegas, while casino operators want us to think that addiction is the result of our moral failings or some biological imbalance, they themselves are to blame for designing machines in a way that feeds addiction. With social media—much like with gambling machines or fast food—our addiction is manufactured, not natural.”

Schüll’s book, a detailed examination of almost every aspect of casino design, from slots to lighting, can help us understand how more of our physical, and particularly built, environment is being shaped by corporations and others with an interest in grabbing and holding our attention, usually for commercial ends.

Understanding our increasingly information-saturated physical surround as a kind of commons, and deciding what do with this knowledge, are the aims of Malcolm McCullough in his new book, Ambient Commons: Attention in the Age of Embodied Information (one part of which appears in adapted form in this issue, pp. 44–55) A professor of architecture at the University of Michigan’s Taubman College, McCullough invites us to think of the ambient as a shared cultural resource and to question whether and how its contents might be intelligently curated and governed.

In his forthcoming book, The World Beyond Your Head, Matthew Crawford, a philosopher and senior fellow at the University of Virginia’s Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture widely known for his book Shop Class As Soulcraft, raises similar concerns about what he calls our “attentional commons.” But he ranges far beyond that topic to explore questions about the intellectual history and epistemology of attention. At the bottom of modern (mis)understandings of attention, he argues, is the early modern revolution in thinking about human freedom: “John Locke fleshed out the idea of freedom in a way that was necessary for his political arguments but also required a re-description of the human being, and of our basic situation in the world. Ultimately, it required a new account of how we apprehend the world,” Crawford writes in an essay (pp. 18–27) anticipating part of his book’s argument. The de-situating of the human person, transforming the person into a pure subjectivity with sole authority for determining the truth, ultimately resulted in the demotion of attention to something bearing little or no relation with its objects and, more generally, the world beyond the self. Yet Crawford does not see this condition as unchangeable fate. His forthcoming investigation of “ecologies of attention that are established in skilled practices”—whether in work or the arts—points to the possible recuperation of attention as a vital part of the good life.

  • Alex Soojung-Kim Pang. The Distraction Addiction: Getting the Information You Need and the Communication You Want, Without Enraging Your Family, Annoying Your Colleagues, and Destroying Your Soul (New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2013).
  • Evgeny Morozov, To Save Everything, Click Here: The Folly of Technological Solutionism (New York: PublicAffairs, 2013).
  • Natasha Dow Schüll, Addiction by Design: Machine Gambling in Las Vegas (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2012).
  • Malcolm McCullough, Ambient Commons: Attention in the Age of Embodied Information (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2013).
  • Matthew Crawford, The World Beyond Your Head (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, forthcoming January 2015).

Jay Tolson is Executive Editor of The Hedgehog Review.

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Published three times a year by the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture, The Hedgehog Review offers critical reflections on contemporary culture—how we shape it, and how it shapes us.

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