Attention

Life is full of inconvenient truths. Galileo. Darwin. Climate change. The parts of our personal, national, and cultural history we barely admit to ourselves, would much rather forget, and never, ever talk about.

In every case, the core argument is the same: “thus-and-such couldn’t possibly be the case because what’s being proposed is simply an outrage.”

Now this is not to delegitimize outrage as a whole but simply to caution against using it as an epistemological device (are you listening, Tea Party?). To put the matter somewhat differently, things can’t be propelled into a state of inexistence by the intensity of the offense we take to them. If they could, they’d disappear each and every time someone got furious at them.

It follows from this that arguing against magical thinking of this sort isn’t the same as saying that something offensive should exist and/or that this is a good thing. No.

It’s simply, in the case of climate change, acknowledging the mountains of scientific evidence that point to the earth currently undergoing a major fluctuation in temperature that is not the result of a natural process and threatens the existence of humans. Of course the oil companies are up in arms about this, and of course they’re working round the clock to call it a “myth.”

In a similar way, neurologists, pediatricians, educators, and parents have been putting their heads together for a long time around something rather important. This is something that continues to gain definition, and something I argue is worth taking seriously instead of dismissing as based on a myth or exaggeration.

This is ADHD. What is it and why is it so controversial? In order to answer that question, we have to look at what the diagnosis is based on (what the aforementioned article disparages, diminishes, and dismisses): attention.

At least this way, if and when someone is still inclined to reject the notion of an attention span, they’ll at least have a better idea of what it is they’re rejecting.

What is Attention?
Science is full of analogies. Light is like a particle; no, it’s like a wave; all right, it’s like a wavicle. Same with attention: science is always looking for newer and better ways of describing a set of phenomena which have drawn a particular kind of interest. When your primary concern is helping a particular kind of child navigate through school and life, you ask certain questions that lead you to look at certain things with greater precision.

While the analogy isn’t perfect (no analogy really is), one of the best ways I’ve found to describe attention is as a beam of light. To use a light effectively, there are a few things you have to know or learn how to do in short order. They are: turning it on, keeping it on, holding it still, switching it from one thing to another (and back), and turning it off.

Initiate
Attention first of all has to be initiated. That means getting started with a task: taking the first step, sitting down at your computer, getting behind the wheel. This is easy enough for most of us most of the time. However, all of us know what it’s like to be so overwhelmed by a task that we don’t know where to begin.

Imagine looking at a messy room, messy house, or driveway full of snow. It can be dispiriting enough to postpone any action taken to make it better, and the more we postpone, the bigger the task becomes in our mind. The garage. The tax return. Ugh.

Now imagine that life itself felt like a messy room. Imagine everything feels like a chore, but not so much because you’re depressed (although you may also be), but because you have such a hard time identifying a time and place to begin.

Imagine also that, as for most of us, once you get started things flow smoothly. Once someone sits you down in front of the computer your novel or dissertation pours out; it’s just getting to your desk that’s the problem. Imagine that your taxes or billing do themselves once someone forces you to do them.

In many cases, you may even forget how burdensome the task seemed once you’re on a roll. What’s up with that? Why is it that all you seem to need in life is a nudge, a more or less gentle push to get going? Why is it that, in order to focus your attention on something, someone or something has to direct it for you?

You start to wonder, at whatever age, what makes you so different from everybody else.

Sustain
Once you’ve turned the attentional light on, your next job is to keep it on. For most of us, attention is like a flashlight with a full battery: once on, stays on. Recharge every so often, but no real effort is required to keep it going once it’s going.

Now imagine that instead of a solid-state battery you have a manual one. You know, the kind with a crank you have to turn by hand to charge a battery. Imagine further that your battery only holds charge for a few seconds, which forces you to crank and crank and crank just to be able to see where you’re going on a dark night.

All of us know how hard it is to keep focusing on a boring lecture, passage, or person. Now imagine the whole world felt like a boring lecture. No, you’re not sleepy, but everything seems to require so much mental effort.

Let’s say starting tasks isn’t hard, it’s just slogging through them that kills you. At any time of the day there’s any ton of things you’d rather be doing. Problem is, once you’re doing them, you want to be doing anything else.

You have a hard time explaining an odd paradox to yourself, to say nothing of everyone else: while just about every task feels odious enough to avoid at all costs, you’re not at a state of mental rest. Quite the opposite, you feel deeply restless inside.

And despite society’s reasoned judgment that you must be lazy, you know you have mental energy. How else would you, in many cases, have such a rich fantasy life?

What you don’t understand is why life gave you a crank-operated cell where everyone else seems to have a battery. Your task, growing up, is to find some explanation for this that doesn’t cost you your self-esteem.

Inhibit
As if things couldn’t get more complicated, you sometimes come into places where they tell you to turn that (at times bleeping) attentional light off. Don’t look! Or at least don’t be obvious about it.

Worse, there are times and places where you’ve not only managed to start a task, and are off and running with it, when along comes someone telling you to stop. Pencils down. Our time is up. Sorry, but I forgot to mention that I’m married.

Ouch. That’s when we find ourselves hitting the brakes, and surprise, surprise: not all of us have the same brand and kind of brakes. Some of us can bite our tongue better than others, not blurt out the answer or secret to the magic trick, keep from telling the semantically or socially inappropriate anecdote, or get dressed and shimmy down the fire escape faster than others.

People call you “impulsive,” and wonder why you can’t be like everyone else. You may or may not be fidgety. Depending on how old you are when people start noticing this, and depending on how much neuropsychology they know, you might start wondering what’s wrong with you, as well.

Shift
Let’s say you can do everything else with your light – turning it on, turning it up, turning it off – but moving it back and forth really kills you. Over here, no, over here – why are two people trying to have separate and simultaneous conversations with you in each ear?

For most of us, dichotic listening tasks are something we only encounter at parties or in laboratories. But imagine life being a series of relentless, contradictory, and incommensurable demands for an attention of yours that’s in constantly short supply.

Imagine you’re at the amusement park and you have to hit the clown’s nose with a water pistol in order to blow up your balloon. Now imagine you have to blow up three balloons: yours and your two neighbors’ and that time is running out. Ugh! You missed! You dropped the ball!

Imagine life being like that. Imagine that since you were a kid, you’ve hated transitions. One classroom to another, one car trip after another. You’re fine once you get used to it, but you’ve come to loathe the words “change of plans!”

Since you can remember, you’ve loved nothing more than sitting in a quiet, dimly lit room with a book, a phone, or your thoughts, but never the company of more than one. Imagine loving people but hating gatherings because being around more than one person at a time just drives you nuts.

Imagine being furiously jealous of and despising the person who can’t stop switching their gaze from you, the TV set, and the other people at the bar.

Imagine having to explain this to people over and over throughout your life. Imagine the toll it takes on you if this fact is brought to your attention by a teacher or parent in a less than compassionate way, at an early age.

Stay
Ok, now imagine you have the opposite kind of shifting difficulty. Instead of being unable to peel your light off one thing and attend to another, you can’t hold your light on one thing for more than a few seconds.

When you can’t, or have trouble doing so, here’s what you hear: “look at me, please,” “where is your mind right now,” “pay attention,” or “am I really that boring a date?”

All you know is that your mind is a grasshopper jumping around, and that it takes every effort on your part to keep your eyes or mind on one thing. You may or may not have figured out, or been told, that it helps to sit in the front row or take dates to the quietest, least visually stimulating places possible. You may or may not have found your way to nicotine, which really helps you focus, or to meditation.

You’ve known all you life you have a restless mind, but you wonder what could ever be done about it.

So here’s your handy-dandy acronym for the attentional functions: Initiate, Sustain, Inhibit, Shift, Stay = ISISS (n.b.: many folks leave off the last S for savings). Think light beam or spotlight and you’re off to the races. 🙂

Why is ADHD controversial?
Criticism of the diagnosis comes in many flavors. There are concerns about pathologizing ordinary differences between people, thus stigmatizing them, and an overreliance on medical solutions to everyday problems. There are also understandable concerns about the influence of the pharmaceutical industry in generating the science that medicine is based on.

There are also concerns about unfairly demonizing the video game industry. Today you may also encounter the belief that the diagnosis is entirely the result of poor teaching or classroom management, which suggests that its symptoms should disappear outside of the school environment.

ADHD can show up as impulsivity and/or one or more of the forms of inattention I described above. There are medicines one can take, as well as therapies that involves training the mind through meditation, mindfulness, or brainwave biofeedback.

So what’s the big deal?
The most common thing people face with attentional conditions is being labeled “lazy,” or “inattentive” as if it were a moral failure instead of a clinical condition. Of course the earlier this happens in someone’s life the greater the chance it will work its way into the self-esteem and become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Here’s a typical scenario: you’re told you’re of average to above-average intelligence, but that you don’t “apply yourself” in school. Nobody knows why they have to tell you or push you to do everything, or why everything overwhelms you. You don’t know why mental tasks that seem so easy for everyone else – reading a book all the way through, paying attention in class or in a conversation, revising an essay, checking your work – are all so much harder for you.

You don’t know why you can’t sit still, focus (unless you have a cigarette), keep from interrupting or blurting out the answers. All you know is that you act first and think later, and that this has cost you dearly throughout your life.

You may or may not get mad, at others, society, and/or yourself, and channel that rage in more or less appropriate ways. You could turn it outward and become an political leader or educator. You could also turn it inward and think less of yourself or your abilities.

Now because your society is still learning about all this, you’re at especially high risk for making the awful and incorrect assumption that your attentional challenges have anything to do with your overall intelligence. You may or may not act in accordance with what you’re being encouraged to believe about yourself, often by the people closest to you.

The easiest thing for your culture and you to do is assume your failure to meet cultural expectations with regard to output, efficiency, or focus can be remedied through exhortation and blame. The harder thing is to peel the pejoratives away, look at what’s happening, and suggest a solution.

A change of classrooms, some timely teaching tips administered in a non-threatening way, a more structured work or learning environment, medication, meditation, or a really cool new app for your phone all could be part of the solution and an end to your suffering.

But only if you believe that what’s happening to you is real, not a moral failing, and not just an inconvenient truth for someone else.

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Olbermann vs our Middling Politics

http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/22425001/vp/40205221#40205221

Brilliant.

There’s a disease that’s been affecting the American body politic for some time, one all the more insidious by masking as a cure for what is supposed to be an even bigger ailment – partisanship. It goes by many names (one of the best perhaps “the view from nowhere“) but I like to call it Middling.

Middling

Middling is the fetishistic pursuit of an illusory “middle place” in our civic life, free from commitments of any sort – emotional, religious, but especially political – which are always and everywhere seen as forms of “bias” obstructing the search for truth.

It’s sold in many ways, but most commonly as the belief that it’s fashionable to profess no allegiance to any political party or, in the extreme, hold any ideals at all. In one popular expression, it comes across as the desire to mock everything and believe in nothing (because believing in something, of course, opens you up to being mocked).

The Middler

The Middler is also intensely skeptical of (bordering on contemptuous towards) ideals. For them, ideals are the same as ideology, and just as bad as parties in obstructing a clear view of the truth. In place of ideals they profess a “pragmatism” which derives its legitimacy from a caricature of ideals as mindless, inflexible, and ultimately immature.

For the Middler, ideals are the kinds of things only fundamentalists and other zealots have. They’re not zealots, so therefore, they have no ideals or ideologies. It goes without saying, of course, that the belief in the existence and properties of such a political “middle” is itself never regarded by Middlers as a form of ideology.

Now Middlers come by their aversion to ideals, parties, and positions honestly. That is to say, they’re not evil, or necessarily trying to deceive. They’re simply repeating what they’ve been told by people they respect. Those people, in turn, are not evil but simply reacting, I think, to the increasingly hostile and divided tone of our politics. (Of course they also have a product to sell, but that’s another discussion entirely.)

Middling regards partisanship as the principal enemy of the day, holding it to blame exclusively for a loss of civility or sanity.

Now I think they’re right about our coarsening as a culture, and of course I’m concerned about that, too. I just think what the Middlers propose by way of remedy obscures the real problem and ultimately makes matters worse. My issue with the Middlers, then, is not a moral so much as a theoretical and tactical one.

On the level of theory, I question whether it’s possible to have so antiseptic a position towards political, moral, or any other kind of commitment commonly regarded as “bias.” At a tactical level, I question whether – if the goal is to promote conversation about and engagement in the issues of the day – Middling is really the way to go.

Against Middling – Theoretical Concerns

The theoretical argument is simple, though it does have its complexities and nuances, which I recommend highly for the interested reader (start at the bottom of p. 272 of Truth and Method).

It goes like this: you want to be against bias in all forms, eh? Fine. Start speaking.

Ok, when you started speaking (or writing), you had to choose a particular word to start, no? Sure you did. What made you choose that word instead of another? Even better, if a conversation is like a chess match (but even if it isn’t) what made you decide to start with this move rather than that one? With this idea rather than that one?

Aren’t there ideas you hold that you didn’t choose for yourself, that you inherited from the culture, about which you may not even be aware, about which your culture may be unaware?

Call these starting points for and boundaries of conversation “biases” or prejudice if you will, but I like prejudgments more. And good luck trying to get rid of them. Without them, conversation couldn’t even begin, much less distinguish better from lesser arguments.

Against Middling – Tactical and Political Concerns

What Olbermann did masterfully last night is show how it was folks such as Cronkite, Murrow, and the early Ted Koppel – each of whom bore the brunt of “partisan” accusations in their own day – who respectively helped bring an end to Vietnam, McCarthyism, and the Carter presidency (OK Olbermann kind of just implied that last point).

And as I tweeted last night, it wasn’t “objectivity” that exposed Watergate, it was journalism: real, honest journalism that wasn’t trying to play “fair and balanced” games with Nixon on one side and a “partisan” press on the other.

Olbermann did us another favor, however. He suggested that today’s journalistic desire to be free from bias oddly coincided with its utter failure to report effectively, even now, on the Bush Administration’s stated reasons for invading Iraq. In short, he tied the nostalgia for the “old journalism” ascribed to Cronkite with todays journalism as stenography.

In case you think the Judy Miller affair is over, just listen, to an NPR reporter chide a fellow journalist for not taking the Administration’s view of events at face value.

How was this transmogrification of journalism, from speaking truth to power to speaking the truth of power, possible? Without going into details, Olbermann hints that it was through a reduction of truth to mere “facts.”

The truth of Watergate, for example, was that the President broke the law. This is a truth that was being obscured by what today’s Middlers would go after – the “facts” as presented. What a Middling TV, radio, or cable “news host” would do today is try to get “the facts” having a lawyer for the “alleged burglars” debate a real investigative reporter, and then consider their job done.

In a similar way, Middling (non)voters think their civic job is done when they thumb their nose at “the system,” saying things like “a pox on both parties,” then refuse to do anything other that criticize what’s wrong.

Offer a solution? No, that’s for idealists and ideologues. Build something? Why? It could only be mocked (and we couldn’t stand that).

Truth is, Watergate wouldn’t get reported today because “facts” couldn’t have been discovered without someone willing to risk life, limb, and reputation to go out and get them. That’s what people like Murrow did.

Contrary to the belief of those whose feathers he ruffled, Murrow wasn’t an ideological partisan, but he sure had ideals. And he paid the price for them professionally, as Olbermann may yet. Time will tell if the cable viewing market is as supportive of journalism as it is of snark and nostalgia.

Hey Karl

“Hey Karl.”
“Hey.”
“So?”
“So what?”
“So whatdya think?”
“Honestly?”
“Of course.”
“I think we could have done better.”
“Come on!”
“No, really.”
“That was a rout, man! Close to the biggest pickup of seats in a single election in history, just like you asked!”

“Yes, I know, but…”
“But what? Look, don’t even think about—”
“Oh no no no – I don’t mean to sound ungrateful at all!”
“We agreed, remember?”
“Yes, of course.”
“And I really hope you’re not suggesting that I didn’t—”
“No, no! Look, please stop. You’re making me nervous.”
“Well all right then.”
“What you did is wonderful, it really is.”
“It wasn’t easy, you know.”
“I know.”

“You saw Grant Park. You saw how united they were – holding hands, weeping together, hugging one another.”
“Yes, yes, of course I remember.”
“And not just there, all across the US. And the world. That was just two years ago, pal.”
“I know. I know. Look, you really don’t have to remind me.”
“Oh no, I think I do, little friend.”
“Yes, of course. I’m sorry. You were saying.”
“Perfect strangers too, many of them. Embracing, kissing, forging memories that will be passed on for generations. Generations!”
“Yes, I heard you.”
“Do you know how hard it is to even begin to roll back something of that magnitude?”
“I know, I know. That’s why we hired you, and that’s why we pay top dollar.”
“And don’t act like the money just came out of nowhere, either.”
“You know, I was meaning to ask—”
“Quiet. I don’t have to explain myself to you.”
“No, of course not. I was simply sharing my admiration for your work in Citizens United.”
“To be honest, and as I’m sure you’re well aware, the tough one was really Gore v Bush.”
“Yes, I’m sure. Look, can I get you something? No? OK, I’m sorry. You were saying?”

“I was about to say it was all pretty much downhill from there. And then I gave you the House.”
“Yes, I know, and believe me, we are more than gratef—”
“Shut up, you ingrate, and listen. I don’t want to be having this conversation again.”
“Yes, master.”
“What I did for you Tuesday night is something you still can’t see.”
“What’s that, sir?”
“Truth is, I’ve been doing it ever since Obama got elected.”
“Oh, the Tea Party? Well, of course we’re most grate—”
“Quiet. Not the Tea Party. Any idiot could have thought of, much less predicted that.”
“I’m sorry, sir, to what do you refer?”

“Karl, do you remember back when someone threatened to pass a bill granting rights to people gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered?”
“If I recall correctly, you got someone to offer a compromise.”
“Yes, now do you remember what kind?”
“The kind that gave rights to L, G and B but not to T.”
“Right. And why did I do that?”
“So that – oh, so that progressives would be forced to choose between a bill that would infuriate part of its base or no bill at all!”
“Right.”
“Kind of a Sophie’s Choice. Brilliant, sir!”
“Yes, thank you. And how did we market that?”
“Pragmatism. Realism. The notion that progress is incremental, and that folks morally opposed to throwing one group of people under the bus were being petulant, whiny, and irresponsible.”
“Right. Now why did I go to all the trouble?”

“Oh, to get the other side to fight itself instead of us!”
“Exactly.”
“So?”
“So? Have you read the paper lately?”
“Oh my G—”
“Watch it.”
“Sorry, sir. Wow. You’re just, just awesome.”
“Thank you. Now, if all goes according to plan, conservative Democrats will keep on bashing progressive Democrats right up until the Election Day 2012.”
“Masterful. Getting the members of a group to police themselves spares the dominant group a lot of trouble.”
“Indeed.”
“Women telling other women how to dress, how to behave…minorities equating success with a loss of ethnic identity—”
“Thank you, that’s enough.”
“But…”
“But what?”
“What if progressive Democrats don’t get turned off from their party and keep demanding to be heard?”
“Then the message, dear Karl, is what?”
“That either you’re with us, or against us?”
“You catch on quick.”

“Now if you’ll excuse me, I have work to do.”
“May I ask what you’re devising now, master?”
“I’m getting Democratic folks on Twitter to chide one another for criticizing the President. What? What is it now?”
“No offense, sir, but do you think they’ll buy that? I mean, they are Democrats, of course. They think dissent is patriotic, and…yes, sir. I’m sorry, sir.”
“I think we’re done here. Do you have the list of souls ready?”
“Yes, sir, but I have just one more question.”
“Sure.”
“I see how you got Democrats on Twitter to turn against one another, but how’d you get the White House to blast the ‘professional left?’ I mean, they must know more than anyone else how critical progressives were to their success in 2008 and will be in 2012.”
“Karl?”
“Yes, sir?”
“A master magician never gives away all his secrets.”