The Intelligence Heuristic – Attention

Finally, after exploring both memory and reasoning, we arrive at the odd-ball out in Kahneman’s description of intelligence. The vast majority of our population doesn’t think of ‘the ability to deploy attention when needed’ as a component of intelligence – instead, we tend to blabber on about concepts that are extensions of the two components we have already discussed like ‘ability to problem solve,’ ‘critical thinking,’ or even one that is related, ‘emotional awareness.’ It seems to me that our society views deploying attention when needed as a trivial matter – ‘of course we can just focus on something when we need to, that’s not exactly a skill!’ Yet, in even uttering that phrase amongst educators, you will see some raised eyebrows and heads shaking in a non-committal side-to-side gesture, likely accompanied with the verbal accoutrements of ‘hmmmm’ and ‘yeaahhhhh, ideallyyy…’

In 1979, the profound and prescient educational thinker Neil Postman proposed a theory that he called the Thermostatic View of Education. The theory was far from his first or last word on pedagogical design and, for reasons that are beyond the scope of this article, received very little praise and second thoughts. Essentially, the Thermostatic View stated that one of the primary purposes of education is to act as a cultural ‘thermostat,’ sensing in which direction the greater cultural information climate (the first curriculum that we learn from) was trending and to provide a measure of ‘climate control’ to that curriculum. “Every society is held together by certain modes and patterns of communication which control the kind of society it is. One may call them information systems, codes, message networks, or media of communication,” he wrote, “Taken together they set and maintain the parameters of thought and learning within a culture. Just as the physical environment determines what the source of food and exertions of labor shall be, the information environment gives specific direction to the kinds of ideas, social attitudes, definitions of knowledge, and intellectual capacities will emerge.”

He qualifies that the Thermostatic View is not a new idea, returning to the work of Plato, who at the time was struggling to understand and counterbalance the effects of the written word versus oral. “The spoken word – rhythmic, aural, subjective, resonant, always in the present – versus the written word – cold, visual, abstract, objective, timeless. This was the conflict, the invisible issue which generated an education crisis. What was at stake here was not the virtue of Greek youth, but their intellect, for Plato knew that the dominant form of information in a culture shapes the intellectual orientation of its citizens.” Without diving into the intricacies of this ancient debate, let us say that Postman theorized that there was cause to believe that Plato himself was of the Thermostatic persuasion, that he “saw both sides of the picture. He knew the value of both speech and writing, but in the context of that time and place, he decided in favor of the written word. And he so decided because it was the spoken word that controlled the minds of the young. The written word was to release them from its grip. Though Plato did not say it, he must have believed that at that juncture the function of education was to free the young from the tyranny of the past. Sometimes the function of education is to free the young from the tyranny of the present. It depends on what is the character of the information environment.”

On first thought, what characterizes our information environment in 2019? Go!

And now on second thought, expand upon those things that you listed above – how does the information environment of 2019 direct our attention? What are its effects?

If you are like me, you immediately answered something to the effect of: “The internet… and that’s it. Sadly, a few particular components of the internet – email, social media, YouTube – compose our information environment in many senses. And this directs our attention to be scattered and seeking temporary highs – dopamine hits.” Obviously this is just a off-the-bat teacher’s response to the question, and there is much more complexity involved in our current information environment than this statement gives credit. However, if we were to take this statement as a grossly generalized truth and move forward, we would be left with a fairly straightforward answer: since the internet and all that it entails composes our current information environment, obviously someone of the Thermostatic persuasion would simply develop their curriculum to counterbalance the effects of it. But… what exactly would that curriculum look like? Would we simply shun personal phones and computers while in the classroom for textbooks and poster boards? Good luck with that, right?

The answer, of course, is that we need to understand the information environment on a deeper level, allowing the knowledge to impact decisions we make both personally and globally. Because this is obviously not intended to be a treatise, I will describe, informally, a couple of the impacts I see in short order form. Please feel free to weigh in on what I have missed, or direct me to resources that refute my observations, as this topic deserves much further research.

Let’s begin with the obvious: the information environment we live in today disrupts our concentration and contemplation. For example, when a physical book is transferred into an online format, it rarely remains as it was in print form – hyperlinks are inserted into the text, and plus symbols ready to open a new internet tab stare at us from the top of our screen. “Its links and other digital enhancements propel the reader hither and yon,” writes Nicholas Carr in The Shallows, “It loses what the late John Updike called its “edges” and dissolves into the vast, rolling waters of the Net. The linearity of the printed book is shattered, along with the calm attentiveness it encourages in the reader.” Let me be clear – it’s not that this setup is bereft of benefits. Being able to, for example, look up the meaning of an unknown word may help us to expand our workable lexicon much more quickly! The point I am making is that we tend to be all-too-quick to highlight those benefits and ignore the possibilities of downsides. What effect does the break in attention to look up a word have on the plausibility of us following along with the argument of the text (especially if it is a complex read)? Does it affect how long we will remain reading the text from that point on? Etcetera. “Whether I’m online or not, my mind now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles,” The Shallows goes on to say, “Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski.”

The information environment also seems to hijack the component of our brain that begs us for efficiency. Standing in line at the grocery store? Make use of that time by getting something else done on your smartphone! Did you go to an optional lecture offered by a Guest Speaker at your University? If she doesn’t seem to immediately serve your purposes or interest you, then why is it even worth staying for it – just get up and leave to do something more productive! This line of thinking is almost laughably paradoxical because, if we are being honest with ourselves on how we end up spending our time after leaving the lecture (or using the smartphone in line), a significant portion of the time is wasted doing dumb things, like scrolling social media, watching a YouTube video, or checking email yet again (email, specifically, is the most challenging for us to recognize that it is unimportant as compared to our greater aspirations in life or work. That’s all I will say on that matter for now, though). Perhaps the time you spent standing in line, staring at the ceiling, and daydreaming really is a waste of time that should be eliminated, if possible. However, I would refute vigorously that line of thinking. Times like that are Where the Magic Happens, where we Train the Imagination. Perhaps the lecture would have actually ended up being a complete waste of time… but I think that if we have the ability to concentrate on it enough to ask the next question, any such setting could spark intriguing lines of thought more worthwhile than whatever it was we wanted to do on our phone instead.

Though not all lines of thought would be consistent on this point, generally both of the impacts described above operate on the level of the individual. However, in order to fully understand the issues at play, we must also wonder at how the information environment affects collective or social intelligence. What I mean to say here is that while the internet can fragment our attention – scatter it towards short, disconnected tidbits – it can also play an active role in determining which pieces of information we are ever exposed to in the first place. For example, if I am writing a paper in my history class, I am going to want to have some resources to support my evidence. Relevant pieces of information can be selected from a book… but we must read the entire book first in order to find them. This is sure to do several things: take a lot of time and concentration, and to force us to understand the information in the broader context of the book, to name a few. The internet provides us with a powerful alternative: we can simply use a search query to gain access to the information for which we are looking. Importantly, though, the information that is returned from our query is generated by the algorithms of our technology. If you think about that statement, hopefully Orwell’s famous quote starts running through your mind (preferably to the renegade sound of Rage Against the Machine): “Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.”

Instead of controlling the present overtly, of course, internet browsers control the present in a much more subtle (and scary) way. “The faster we surf across the surface of the Web – the more links we click and pages we view – the more opportunities Google gains to collect information about us and to feed us advertisements,” Carr wrote in The Shallows, “Its advertising system, moreover, is explicitly designed to figure out which messages are most likely to grab our attention and then to place those messages in our field of view. Every click we make on the Web marks a break in our concentration, a bottom-up disruption of our attention—and it’s in Google’s economic interest to make sure we click as often as possible.” Although Orwell’s statement certainly seems to predict this situation, as Postman predicted in 1985, it was never Big Brother that we should fear. “Orwell warns that we will be overcome by an externally imposed oppression,” Postman wrote in Amusing Ourselves to Death. “But in Huxley’s vision, no Big Brother is required to deprive people of their autonomy, maturity and history. As he saw it, people will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think.”

In a paper published in Perspectives on Psychological Science 2019, Thomas Hills explains that humans have well-understood limits on the amount of information we can actually process at one time. “As information proliferation – the consumption and sharing of information – increases through social media and other communications technology, these limits create an attentional bottleneck, favoring information that is more likely to be searched for, attended to, comprehended, encoded, and later reproduced,” wrote Hills. “In information-rich environments, this bottleneck influences the evolution of information via four forces of cognitive selection, selecting for information that is belief-consistent, negative, social, and predictive.” In essence, we develop a culture-based positive feedback loop. Google first selects what information we will receive from our query (as discussed, the information is both a product of the algorithms which Google decides upon and the need for Google to advertise to us), and then, we inform Google on how it should rearrange it’s algorithm based on what we (the searchers) actually choose to click – the most popular information. This process has the effect of creating an echo-chamber of sorts, where information is amplified. And you guessed it – the information that gets amplified tends to be ‘the extremes.’ Hills warned that this process causes “severe pitfalls for the naive ‘informavore,’ accelerating extremism, hysteria, herding, and the proliferation of misinformation.” Is our society not more polarized and extremist than ever before? Personally, I don’t really know… I don’t feel like taking in all the information required to legitimately compare today to the past, so I am going to settle for going with my ‘gut feeling’ on this one. 😉

You may have recognized at this point why I previously wrote that the post on attention as a component of intelligence would be ‘a doozy.’ The question we are dealing with here is not whether or not being able to deploy attentional resources when needed is a skill. The question is whether the information environment of 2019 warrants a deeper look at the dynamics of human attention in service of providing education that counters any ill-effects on ‘the intellectual orientation’ of our citizens. Obviously this will be far from my last word on the topic. Yet, I drone on… so let’s get to a few practical implications for educators in the classroom.

What to do about it?

As of now, I don’t know the answer to this question. However, my team and I are trying to observe and learn everyday in our respective classrooms, and we have the autonomy to experiment. In terms of creating a Thermostatic opposition to our current information environment right now, my team and I do several things:

  • A Mindful Moment at the start of every class.
  • Try to have students read physical books, even in mathematics. In some ways, this is the reciprocal to the mindful moment. “Reading a book was a meditative act, but it didn’t involve a clearing of the mind. It involved a filling, or replenishing, of the mind.” Carr wrote in The Shallows, “Readers disengaged their attention from the outward flow of passing stimuli in order to engage it more deeply with an inward flow of words, ideas, and emotions. That was—and is—the essence of the unique mental process of deep reading. It was the technology of the book that made this ‘strange anomaly’ in our psychological history possible. The brain of the book reader was more than a literate brain. It was a literary brain.”
  • Discuss extreme-ism, nuance, and complexity on a daily basis.
  • When discussing the above, explicitly differentiate when we are in the realm of moral questions, or questions of value, versus when we are in a realm that can have discrete answers. The recent texts by Yuval Noah Harari – Sapiens and Homo Deus – have been exceptionally good starter reads for some of these conversations.
  • Use Yond’r Bags on a daily basis at our school.
  • Begin the year with an Outward Bound-style backpacking trip for 17-21 days.
  • Generally operate our classrooms on a “One-to-Zero” basis. GTFOH “One-to-One”. No computers (there are obviously exceptions, but that could be a whole ‘nother post).
  • Work really hard on developing our school ‘narrative.’ This helps students to at least recognize that there are actually choices to be made surrounding our use of technology. We ultimately try to make it kind of ‘cool’ to buck the trend from normal teenagers by not being attached to our technology.
  • Daily fitness. Based on the principles outlined in Spark by John Ratey, we have students challenge themselves physically every school day for 50 minutes in the morning.
  • Complete a Senior Solo.

What have I missed? What do you think?



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s