Technology can be a double-edged sword: email and mobile devices help us accomplish tasks quickly and efficiently. But they also present endless opportunities to procrastinate. Scholar Cathy Davidson argues that we can actually benefit from distractions and disruptions over the course of our day. She joins us to explain how innovative schools and workplaces are harnessing the power of distractions to boost creativity and increase learning.


  • Cathy Davidson Ruth F. DeVarney Professor of English and John Hope Franklin Humanities Institute Professor of Interdisciplinary Studies, Duke University; also founder, Humanities, Arts, Science, and Technology Advanced Collaboratory, (HASTAC, pronounced “haystack”), MacArthur Foundation Digital Media and Learning Competition; and author, "Now You See It: How the Brain Science of Attention Will Transform the Way We Live, Work, and Learn" (Viking)

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Excerpted from “Now You See It: How the Brain Science of Attention Will Transform the Way We Live, Work, and Learn,” by Cathy Davidson. Copyright 2011 by Cathy Davidson. Reprinted here by permission of Viking:

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  • 13:06:44

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show." As technology evolves and becomes and more and more integrated into our lives, there's a growing fear that it could intrude too far into the workplace, school and social lives. Studies have shown that Facebook reduces office productivity, costing companies money and leading over half to block Facebook and Twitter at work.

  • 13:07:24

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIBut are the distractions technology brings to work and school all bad? Could they be embraced as new tools for stimulating creativity and developing new teaching techniques? Cathy Davidson thinks if we understand how our brain's attention span has changed in this digital age we can use technology and the distractions it brings to our advantage both in school and at work.

  • 13:07:49

    MR. KOJO NNAMDICathy Davidson joins us in studio. She is a Ruth F. DeVarney professor of English and John Hope Franklin Humanities Institute professor of Interdisciplinary Studies at Duke University, also co-founder of Humanities, Arts, Science and Technology Advanced Collaboratory at the MacArthur Foundation Digital Media and Learning Competition and author of "Now You See It: How the Brain Science of Attention Will Transform the Way We Live, Work, and Learn".

  • 13:08:20

    MR. KOJO NNAMDICathy Davidson, thank you so much for joining us.

  • 13:08:22

    MS. CATHY DAVIDSONIt's my pleasure. Thank you for having me.

  • 13:08:23

    NNAMDIYou, too, can join the conversation. Just call us at 800-433-8850. Send us email to Do you find that you benefit from distractions throughout the day? If so, how and if not, how do you stay on task? 800-433-8850. Cathy Davidson, hand wringing over the distracting effects of technology is not new. In fact, you say that Socrates would have urged us to blend the alphabet for our distractions.

  • 13:08:56

    DAVIDSONIt's true, the historian Robert Darnton says there have been four great information ages in all human history and the first one is the invention of writing, which changed the way people communicated in a way that there was no going back and that happens in about 4,000 BC. But during the classical period, when Socrates was living, the alphabet is invented and diacritical remarks are invented and Socrates thought it was terrible. He said it hurt your memory. It was distracting and it was a kind of a diminished way of thinking. It wasn't as exciting as interactive thinking.

  • 13:09:32

    NNAMDIAnd so that's comparable to what we're undergoing today with Twitter?

  • 13:09:36

    DAVIDSONIt is true. It is true, except I think maybe Socrates would like Twitter because he liked interactivity. He believed in the dialogue form and Twitter is a great form of the dialogue. What he didn't like was how static writing was. It made you forget things because you could write them down. It didn't test your memory in the same way.

  • 13:09:56

    NNAMDISo this is not new, it's old. You are not a neurologist. In fact, you started your career as an English professor, but not your typical kind of English professor. You spent a lot of time rummaging around in attics.

  • 13:10:08

    DAVIDSONI did. And in fact, if your viewers -- if your listeners were viewers, they could see that I'm holding up a -- what was the video game of the 18th century. The third great information age was the invention of steam-powered presses and mass-produced paper and ink and it allowed books, these kinds of books. This book is about the size of a kind of an android, I would say.

  • 13:10:30

    NNAMDIHow old is that book?

  • 13:10:31

    DAVIDSONThis book is from 1800.

  • 13:10:33

    NNAMDIThat's what I thought.

  • 13:10:33

    DAVIDSONAnd it is called a "Duodecimo" and that's a cheap machine-produced book that allowed middleclass and working class people to have books for the first time in history. This is at the time of the founding fathers. Thomas Jefferson didn't like it at all. He was worried because it meant you could read and you didn't have a preacher or a teacher telling you what to read and how to read. You could read. You could hide away your book in a little pocket. In fact, boys and girls made pockets that they could hide their books in so that their parents wouldn't see them stealing away and reading these popular books for the first time in history.

  • 13:11:08

    NNAMDIBecause those books were not likely to be approved either by their teachers or by their parents?

  • 13:11:11

    DAVIDSONExactly, they weren't primers. They weren't theological books. They weren't great speeches. They were novels. They were novels, this new form that often featured, like, working class boys and girls doing adventures, kind of like video games today. They were thought to be promiscuous and violent and they taught disrespect and people were terrified of them. What would happen to the world if people could read novels? Print was a terrible thing unless it was controlled.

  • 13:11:38

    NNAMDIIt reminds me of hiding comic books and my atlases. Well, that's another story. So what made you interested in technology, how it affects the brain and how we view it as society?

  • 13:11:45

    DAVIDSONWell, a couple of things. I was something called vice provost for Interdisciplinary Studies at Duke, which is basically the R&D person for Duke and we were creating a new program for cognitive neuroscience. This is around 1999 and I was reading the dossiers of all these brilliant neuroscientists.

  • 13:12:01

    DAVIDSONAt the same time, I was hearing pundits say the internet was making us so distracted that it was damaging our brains. But all the research I was reading by the neuroscientists said, in fact, that the brain is constantly interactive. There's no such thing as a static brain. There's no such thing as a mono-tasking brain. The brain learns by doing and it's constantly re-learning.

  • 13:12:24

    DAVIDSONThe other thing was because I'd had all this background researching the last information age in the 1800s. I started thinking it was a little fishy that what people were saying about the internet was the same thing Thomas Jefferson was saying about the novel. So I started doing both the history and the neuroscience of attention and have a really different view than the negative view that we get so many times about attention.

  • 13:12:48

    NNAMDII really want to underscore what you're saying here. You're saying that the human brain just is not built to focus on one task at a time. Instead, it's meant to wander from one thing to the next and that our brains have, in fact, always worked that way.

  • 13:13:01

    DAVIDSONYes. In fact, if our brains weren't built that way, there'd be a lot more Buddhas in the world because we have a whole 5,000-year Eastern tradition of meditation which is, you go into a room, you've no distractions and all you do is think about mindfulness. Well, the Eastern world is very wise in knowing that's when your brain goes crazy.

  • 13:13:19

    DAVIDSONThe Cambridge neuroscientists say that 80 percent of your brain's energy is used talking to itself. Only five percent is used when you change from one task to another.

  • 13:13:31

    NNAMDISo it makes sense in a way because were our brains not made in that way we wouldn't have to tell people to focus, focus.

  • 13:13:38

    DAVIDSONExactly, exactly. And in fact, babies focus on everything. What babies learn is how to focus. An adult has 40 percent less neuro-connections than a baby does and what a baby does is it learns which habits keep it on track and which things are important to its society and it doesn't pay attention to anything else.

  • 13:13:58

    DAVIDSONNow, the flipside of that is it doesn't pay attention to anything else so that's what attention blindness is and that's basically where my book begins. It's talking about attention blindness.

  • 13:14:09

    NNAMDIGlad you brought up where it all begins because you say our attention span starts to take shape very early in life as babies. Can we control how distracted we get?

  • 13:14:19

    DAVIDSONAbsolutely, when babies, one of my favorite experiments has been done with Japanese babies because in the West we know that Japanese babies, the Japanese don't get the R and I confused. An infant, a Japanese infant can tell, can hear the difference between R and I. By the time a Japanese infant is six months old, they can't hear it anymore because their language doesn't require it so they don't focus on it anymore.

  • 13:14:47

    DAVIDSONIf an adult Japanese wants to learn English, they have to re-teach themselves a skill they had as an infant. It's that way with all of learning and I think one reason we now feel so distracted is because things are pushing us out of our old patterns and whenever we're pushed out of our own patterns, we have to learn in a new way. As a teacher, I think that's a good thing and I actually think disruption is one of the best methods for learning that we have in the world.

  • 13:15:10

    NNAMDII'm glad you mentioned the Japanese example of trying to unlearn what you have already learned. Are there ways to improve or manage our attention spans if you will?

  • 13:15:20

    DAVIDSONYes, there are. And it depends on if you're feeling overtaxed or undertaxed. I'm convinced one reason we often send kids away on years abroad in college is because culture shock is one of the best ways we have of suddenly opening our minds because it disrupts all of our own patterns. At the same time, if you're in a situation where you feel too distracted -- I had a good time interviewing many of the people who created the internet and said, okay, smarty pants, you've given us this chaotic world. What do you do to control information flows in your life?

  • 13:15:55

    DAVIDSONAnd often they had very simple ways of helping to streamline their own attention. And I talk of, in the course of doing my research, I've found lots of very simple ways to streamline our own attention and make ourselves more effective.

  • 13:16:09

    NNAMDIWell, some people would say, look, over the last four years attention deficit hyperactive disorder or ADHD diagnoses have risen more than 20 percent. Why, therefore, do you think that is?

  • 13:16:21

    DAVIDSONI think we've a mismatch between the way we're taught in schools, which is sitting for impossibly long times. Nobody can sit an hour in any situation without their mind wandering. Bubble tests are a very focused way of learning. The world outside of this very focused restrictive way we have at school is much more active. Kids now we know physically are less active than they've ever been in human history. They move less. They wander less. They have more control in their lives. I think it's almost inevitable they have ADHD.

  • 13:16:56

    DAVIDSONIt's also interesting the same kids who are diagnosed with ADHD in school might go home and play a video game that requires enormous focus and attention for six hours or eight hours. You have to pull them away from it. ADHD is relative to the situation you're in and I personally think school right now, the way we've constructed school right now causes certain kinds of ADHD.

  • 13:17:20

    DAVIDSONThat's not to say that there aren't people that have real issues and I, in no means, want to diminish real disability. That's something to take very, very seriously but I think we have a situation now where we're almost causing kids who aren't disabled to be more disabled because we so restrict their physical movement. I've talked to a lot of old-time school teachers who said get those kids moving and they'll be fine. Get them off sugar and they'll be fine. They thought that, you know, these are pre-internet teachers, old fashioned teachers who said no, get the kids to walk to school and they'll have less ADHD in school which I thought was kind of nice to talk to 80-year-olds who felt that way.

  • 13:17:59

    NNAMDIOur guest is Cathy Davidson. She's a professor at Duke University and the author of numerous books. Her latest is "Now You See It: How the Brain Science of Attention Will Transform the Way We Live, Work, and Learn". 800-433-8850 is the number to call. Has technology made you more productive or is it simply distracting for you? 800-433-8850, in 2010 President Obama nominated Cathy to a six-year term on the National Council on the Humanities, a position confirmed by the Senate this past July of 2011.

  • 13:18:33

    NNAMDISome people can juggle multiple tasks throughout the day and yet be productive, but in a lot of workplaces, people have to focus on one task at a time. Is there a way to build beneficial distractions to jobs that don't come by them naturally?

  • 13:18:51

    DAVIDSONSure, there's two different things. One, there's a really interesting workplace study that was done in Australia about two years ago where it asked people, individuals, how distracted do you feel? And it turned out, they interviewed 700 people. A lot of people said, I've got Twitter, I've got Facebook, I've got email. I've got so much happening at once I don't think I'm effective.

  • 13:19:15

    DAVIDSONThen there was another group of people who said, oh, I'm a mono-tasker. I let all that social media out of my life and I just focus on work. Interestingly, when they compared those two groups of self assessments to what their employers had given them, the people who the employers thought were most productive were the ones who felt they were the least productive and most distracted. It may well be we feel more distracted, but we're actually more productive in the long run and that's fascinating to me. That's kind of turned things up, upside down for a lot of researchers when that survey result came back.

  • 13:19:50

    DAVIDSONWe're not very good at knowing when we're distracted or when we're not distracted.

  • 13:19:55

    NNAMDIIndeed if we don't allow ourselves to get distracted, we can miss things like a gorilla in the middle of a basketball game.

  • 13:20:04

    DAVIDSONYes, this is one of the most famous experiments in cognitive science. It was done in the 1970s, but the technology wasn't very good so it was redone in 1999 by two young professors, one graduate student and one professor, at Harvard. You have six people and they're tossing a basketball back and forth and you ask test subjects to count how many times the ball is only passed between people who are wearing black t-shirts. So the two-minute video was over and then you ask the audience, did they count 13, 14 and 15 is the right number.

  • 13:20:33

    DAVIDSONAnd then the tester says, and who saw the gorilla? And only about 60 percent of people miss that a woman, a young Harvard undergraduate in a gorilla suit, walks on stage among those six basketball players for nine seconds. That's a long time. Sixty percent of people don't see her, a 100 percent of people think if they had seen the video, they would've seen the gorilla. We all believe we see everything. But in fact...

  • 13:20:56

    NNAMDII tried it out on someone this morning and she told me she counted 13 passes. And I said, but did you see the gorilla? And she said, what gorilla?

  • 13:21:04

    DAVIDSONIsn't that amazing? There's an even scarier assignment -- experiment they did with airplane pilots. Where they -- it's in a simulator, thank goodness, and they have a very difficult weather conditions and atmosphere conditions in which somebody has to learn the plane, when they're learning how to be a pilot. And then they show the pilot what they missed. At the very end, right when they thought they were clear and free, there's a simulation of an airliner, another airliner, parked crossway on the runway, 60 percent of people land their plane on that other plane.

  • 13:21:42

    DAVIDSONThey're relieved. They think they've passed the test. They're not paying attention. They hit the other plane and they don't know it until they see it in a simulator. A great thing to learn in a simulator because I think it teaches the pilots never to count on your own attention. Always to realize that unless you're disrupted, you're going to be so focused, you're going to miss something major.

  • 13:22:01

    NNAMDIThe usefulness of distractions. Here's John in Falls Church, Va. John, you're on the air. Go ahead, please. Allow me to have Cathy put her headphones on so that she can hear you, John. But she has and there you go, John.

  • 13:22:14

    JOHNHi, Kojo, thanks for taking my call. I just wanted to say that I don’t think the modern ages brought anymore distractions then 20 years ago did. Yesterday's Facebook was the water cooler and I have plenty of co-workers and I haven't forgotten how to use that. If employees are using these modern tools and items to waste time at work, then I think there's an issue with that person's intrinsic motivation and (unintelligible) ...

  • 13:22:40

    DAVIDSONI couldn't agree with you more, John. I think that's exactly right. I'd like to say distraction is our friend. If we're distracted, it's probably not because of too much technology. It might be because we're bored.

  • 13:22:53

    NNAMDIAnd, John, speaking of the water cooler, you might hear the mention of the water cooler in this new AT&T ad for the blackberry torch 4G. It plays with the idea of distractions at work and how useful they are. Here's a boss delegating tasks to his staff.

  • 13:23:31

    NNAMDILike I said, that was a new AT&T ad for the blackberry torch 4G. But it does make the point, doesn't it?

  • 13:23:37

    DAVIDSONIt does. And I think one positive point, and John if you're still on the line, one thing is...

  • 13:23:41

    NNAMDIHe still is.

  • 13:23:42

    DAVIDSON...there is this problem of a work speed up. We know that we work more hours per week then our parents worked and they worked more hours per week then their parents did. I don't think that's multitasking, I think that many of us have a workplace that bleeds into our personal life in ways. And we simply don't have enough workers doing as much work as needs to be done. And that is a real problem but it's more a problem of sociology then it is technology.

  • 13:24:07

    NNAMDIJohn, thank you very much for your call.

  • 13:24:09

    JOHNThank you, Kojo.

  • 13:24:10

    NNAMDIGoing to take a short break. When we come back, we'll be continuing this conversation with Cathy Davidson. Her most recent book is called "Now You See It: How the Brain Science of Attention Will Transform the Way We Live, Work and Learn." 800-433-8850 is the number to call. Have you noticed a change in your own attention span or your child's as technology has evolved, 800-433-8850? I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

  • 13:26:23

    NNAMDIWelcome back, we're talking about attention and brain science and taking your calls at 800-433-8850. Do you find you benefit from distractions throughout the day and if so, how, and if not, how do you stay on task? 800-433-8850. Our guest is Cathy Davidson. She is Ruth F. DeVarney professor of English and John Hope Franklin Humanities Institute professor of Interdisciplinary Studies at Duke University.

  • 13:26:50

    NNAMDIHer latest book is called "Now You See It: How the Brain Science of Attention Will Transform the Way We Live, Work and Learn." According to one survey, a 1/3 of students and workers under 30 said the internet is a valuable to them -- so valuable that it's as valuable as air, water, food and shelter. Do companies risk alienating the so-called millennial generation by blocking social media sites in workplaces?

  • 13:27:21

    DAVIDSONI think that people who block social media sites in workplaces don't understand the value of distraction. If you block everything they're going to be looking at the window. A wonderful sociologist who studies workplace attention is named Gloria Mark who says we're interrupted about every three minutes, but 43 percent of those interruptions come from our own mind distracting us. So you can either give people social media or you can let them look out the window or hang out in the hallways, maybe that's not a bad thing.

  • 13:27:52

    DAVIDSONBut there's still the idea that you have focused attention. Three minutes you start to fade out, five minutes you're pretty much gone, 20 minutes there's no way you can concentrate for 20 minutes except in very, very unusual circumstances like performing brain surgeries, some people say or sometimes playing video games or pilots in very intense landing situations. But most normal situations, 20 minutes is a very, very long time before your brain takes a little respite.

  • 13:28:20

    NNAMDIThe first job I ever had out of high school was as an audit clerk sometimes where you had to be calling figures back and forth with another individual and because another individual was involved, you had to focus completely on what was being done. Was my first day on the job and after about 30 minutes, I asked my partner whether it was time for lunch because it seemed as if three hours...

  • 13:28:41


  • 13:28:42

    NNAMDI...had transpired during the course of that time.

  • 13:28:43


  • 13:28:44

    NNAMDIWithout distractions, the time just seemed to take so long to pass.

  • 13:28:48

    DAVIDSONExactly and actually that's one of those tasks that very cognitively difficult. Another one that people surprise people, that has huge burnout rate, is simultaneous translation because you have to be listening to every word as you're translating something. So you're forcing your brain to do a multi-tasking in a very rapid high stress situation. And people just burnout.

  • 13:29:11

    NNAMDISo if an employer is worried about productivity, how does that employer strike a balance between keeping technology accessible while also keeping people on task?

  • 13:29:21

    DAVIDSONI think the best advice I've heard on that is to not worry about minute by minute goals but to set actual goals in longer chunks. And how your people achieve that goal has to be up for them -- up to them. I like to say, the most important thing you can do in the information age is relax, take an audit, figure out what you're habits are. Don't let somebody else tell you what's the right or wrong way but figure out what your habit is. So for example, my friends on Facebook and Twitter know I'm a writer.

  • 13:29:49

    DAVIDSONSo I'm writing at my best when I’m most on Twitter and Facebook because often, if I just get a little block, I'll go to Facebook and see about somebody's kids or someone's dad's having a birthday or something happy and it inspires me to come back. But -- so when I’m goofing around, I'm working my hardest. But that's not the case for everybody else.

  • 13:30:11

    DAVIDSONWe all have to realize, there's -- the great thing about this age is we don’t have to have one uniform standardized way of working. The assembly line age is over, I think. And it's time to really take stock of what we do best and how we do it best and make circumstances that serve us. That's what I think -- how I think the brain science of attention can help us rather than hurt us.

  • 13:30:33

    NNAMDIHere is Dick in Washington, D.C. Dick, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 13:30:38

    DICKThank you. I had a story to tell, 1978, '79, my wife -- I got -- I had a sabbatical. My wife and I took our two children out of school. They were going into second and third grade. Our daughter, in the second grade, took one of these achievement tests and was reading at the 35th percentile. Which we thought was kind of low for what we had observed, all of our children are brilliant, of course. And -- but when we came back and she took the same test at the fourth grade level, she was in the 95th percentile and can take it on and received a score of mid 700s in her SAT's.

  • 13:31:22

    DICKWell, she made that jump while she was not going to school. All she did was read and run around. Our son who refused to do anything in school, pretty much, in first grade taught himself math by learning how to convert his allowance from drachma's to lira, whatever it might be. He really did. So I don’t know what this adds to your thesis, but I agree with you're saying and certainly the activity they had and the approach of just reading stories and talking about them and then going out and looking at things was a much more valuable education for them at that time.

  • 13:31:58

    NNAMDICare to comment on that?

  • 13:31:58

    DAVIDSONYes, I do. I mean, I talk a lot about learning disabilities in the book, partly because I'm dyslexic and party because I met so many great teachers who were alarmed that we've come to a kind of one set -- size fits all method of learning. Reading, for example happens in many different places in the brain and in many different ways. So if you're reading something you've read before, you're actually using different mental powers then if you're reading something new.

  • 13:32:22

    DAVIDSONSo it sounds like what your daughter did, when you were in another country, was she was really learning, almost -- she was probably hearing one language in everyday life and reading English and figuring out the system of English. And that's how some kids learn to read. They have to figure out the whole system. They don't know they are but they're putting together almost a mental map of the whole language. And then that they have a sudden effervescent where they jump way ahead in reading.

  • 13:32:47

    DAVIDSONSome people say the other three -- the real three R's are rigor, relationship and relevance. And it sounds like your son really was into relevance. That he was learning how to go from drachma's to dollars and really was learning math in the most kind of practical relevant way. Those are different ways of learning but they're the same in the sense that, if we let kids figure out their learning methods and give teachers the freedom to learn to use different methods rather than a one size fits all kind of bubble test way of teaching, I think we have much more chance of a success then if we try to cram them into one learning style. We all have very different ways of learning the world.

  • 13:33:24

    NNAMDIDick, thank you very...

  • 13:33:25


  • 13:33:25

    NNAMDI...Dick, thank you so much for your call. We move onto Katherine in College Park, Md. Katherine, your turn.

  • 13:33:33

    KATHERINEHi, Kojo. Thanks for having me on. I ran a study a while ago that said that those who stayed at there are very good at multi-tasking or multi-thinking actually tend to be bad at it when compared to those who don’t think they're good at multi-tasking or multi-thinking. And I was wondering if you guys could comment on that?

  • 13:33:52

    DAVIDSONSure. That's a study done by a colleague of mine, Clifford Nass at Stanford and it's a little odd because when you read the footnotes of his study, he actually said -- what you're quoting is what was presenting in the popular media. When you read his study carefully, he says "But it may be that multi-tasking isn't just something where you can add up the number of tasks but that actually people carry a residue of information from one task to another. And we haven't really learned how to measure that yet."

  • 13:34:19

    DAVIDSONAnd I actually think that's the most important part of the study. That a lot of the tests for task and multi-tasking use very old fashioned measures as if we ever do one task. Here's some examples. If you're walking across the street and you're talking to a friend, very energetically, that's as tasking as texting when you're walking across the street. And in fact, we don't even think of that as multi-tasking but it's an incredibly distracting thing to do when you're -- if the traffic is hard and you're still talking to your friend, you're endangering yourself.

  • 13:34:53

    DAVIDSONSo we have very static ideas of what is or isn't multi-tasking. And in the history of technology and this is why it's great to be a historian and think about technology in our era. Whenever there's new technologies, we think of them as being -- as multi-tasking is being caused by that technology. In fact, we're always multi-tasking. In 1930, when Motorola wanted to put radios in the dashboards of cars, Congress wanted to forbid it because they said there would be accidents everywhere from that happening.

  • 13:35:22

    DAVIDSONWe now know in some situations, such as long distance driving, that radio saves lives because people fall asleep, they lose attention, they lose focus. So again, the method is, there's no one size fits all. We have to, again, relax, realize we've gone through a tremendous change in really only 18 years. The internet's only been commercialized since 19 -- April of 1993, that's a huge change in a short time. And we all have to figure out what works best for us. For some people multi-tasking is great, for other people it's frustrating. Don't let anyone tell you what to do. Figure out what works best for you.

  • 13:35:59

    NNAMDIKatherine, thank you very much for your call.

  • 13:36:01

    KATHERINEThank you.

  • 13:36:02

    NNAMDILet's look into the future for a second because you're looking beyond immediate concerns about how distracting technology may or may not be for workers today. And thinking about how technology will shape the jobs of the future.

  • 13:36:15

    DAVIDSONI do and another Australian study showed that 60 -- that if you're a high school student today, 65 percent of the jobs that you will be likely to have when you're an adult haven't even been invented yet. The U.S. Department of Labor Statistic says if you start in the workforce today, you're likely to change careers, not jobs, careers...

  • 13:36:35


  • 13:36:35

    DAVIDSON...four to seven times. Now, how do you train children for a world that's changing that fast? You know, I think the principal -- you use the word earlier, Kojo, of unlearning is a fantastic idea. How do you not just learn new skills but actually unlearn old habits in order to be receptive to new ways of doing things.

  • 13:36:57

    DAVIDSONAnd unfortunately I think we have a national educational policy which so much pays attention to one size fits all, that we're not doing a very good job of teaching our kids how to prepare for the unexpected, for failure, for surprise. And they live in a world where there's constant failure, constant surprise, constant disruption. I think we can do a much better job of preparing them for that world.

  • 13:37:20

    NNAMDITalk more about that in the future, but there are so many people who want to talk to you right now. Allow me to be distracted by that. Here's Ellen in University Park, Md. Ellen, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 13:37:31

    ELLENThank you, Mr. Nnamdi, for asking me on. I'd like to ask the speaker, she briefly referenced in the beginning of the show about children's activity level, walking to school for example, and its effect on the tension. As the parent of two small children, a four-year-old and a six-year-old, we are fortunate enough to live close to a school where we can walk every day. I'd like to ask about some more details. Is there any correlation between the time of the physical activity as related to when school begins or ends as well as the length and intensity of physical activity? What would you encourage parents to think about if they want to help improve their children's attention span?

  • 13:38:11

    DAVIDSONOh, that's a great question. One -- you know, I had a good time talking to teachers who are pre-internet teachers, who are in their 70s and 80s. And one fabulous teacher I met taught indoor 80s and she said that she started noticing when the ADD generation came and noticing a correlation between how little they walked to school, how often their parents would drop them off at school and the -- and problems in class.

  • 13:38:35

    DAVIDSONSo what she would do, is she did this great thing where she would have a, kind of, a spelling bee or a math bee and when a child got the answer right, every other child had to sit there but the child who got the answer right would get up and run around the class and then tag another child and then ask that child a question and sit down. And then that child would run around. Well, she said people thought it was chaotic but in fact only one child was running at a time and what it meant was, the righter you got -- you were -- the more right answers you got, the more you were in control and the more physical activity you got.

  • 13:39:07

    DAVIDSONAnd she said it calmed everyone down. She never -- she didn't have attention problems. I think, again, and I'm going to sound like a broken record here, Ellen, but the -- again the answer is, find out from your own kids what they need, you know, observe them. Maybe you need to go for a beautiful walk on the way to school if you live very close to school. And let your kids' mind wander and their imagination wander. Let them tell you, what do we see today? Maybe play a game where they don't even know that they're walking a longer time.

  • 13:39:37

    DAVIDSONOr it's possible the short distance that you walk with your kids is sufficient for them. But the main thing is, it varies hugely from person to person. So it sounds like you're already on the right track of paying attention to what your kids need most and responding to that. And, of course, if parents get involved or other kids get involved in physical activity. That's good for all of us, not just for our kids.

  • 13:39:59

    NNAMDIEllen, thank you very much for your call.

  • 13:40:01

    ELLENThank you.

  • 13:40:02

    NNAMDIOn to Mike in Bethesda, Md. Mike, your turn.

  • 13:40:08

    MIKEHi there. This is a very interesting discussion that I'm sort of in a quandary here, because there's this state called -- that's been named flow...

  • 13:40:19


  • 13:40:20

    MIKE...and it seems to be real important for doing a lot of very difficult intellectual tasks, and achieving flow and arranging to be interrupted real often would seem to be absolutely diametrically opposed, and I'm curious as to what one should make of this.

  • 13:40:38

    DAVIDSONActually, I spend a lot of time in researching, now you see it in talking to people about flow experiences, and I had one myself. There was one point when I was really intensely working on a part of the book and I tend to wake up early in the morning, and it was 3:00 in the morning when I woke up, and I was writing, and I looked up, and it was suddenly 3:00 o'clock again. And I thought it was 3:00 in the afternoon, and realized when I looked out the window, no, it was 3:00 at night. I had a flow experience that lasted 24 hours.

  • 13:41:03

    DAVIDSONNow, believe me, if you do that too often, you're not a very sane person in the world. What this mentality talks about for flow is that they're usually highly heightened experiences that don't last very often, and that, in fact, you have to interrupt those, you have to be disrupted, or you don't have flow experiences. And if you have too many flow experiences without interruption of those flow experiences, it can almost induce a kind of psychosis.

  • 13:41:30

    DAVIDSONSo he talks about five activities, dancing to rock music, playing chess, brain -- performing brain surgery, and I think I'm forgetting the other ones, but playing video games is one of the others that's been talked about as flow experiences. But those are not -- those unusual special states that are only achieved for short periods of time and again, they can be dangerous if they're engaged in too long and too often, but boy they sure are nice when they come, aren't they?

  • 13:42:00

    NNAMDIIndeed. Mike, thank you very much for your call.

  • 13:42:04

    MIKEThank you.

  • 13:42:04

    NNAMDIGonna take a short break. When we come back we'll continue this conversation with Cathy Davidson. Her latest book is called, "Now You See It: How the Brain Science of Attention Will Transform the Way We Live, Work, and Learn." Taking your calls at 800-433-8850. Has technology made you more productive or is it simply distracting for you. 800-433-8850. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

  • 13:44:13

    NNAMDIWelcome back. Our guest is Cathy Davidson. She's the Ruth F. DeVarney Professor of English and John Hope Franklin Humanities Institute professor of interdisciplinary studies at Duke University. She's the author of several books. Her latest is called "Now You See It: How the Brain Science of Attention Will Transform the Way We Live, Work, and Learn." Well, working and learning, from work to the classroom. In 2003 you launched a program at Duke that gave iPods to all incoming freshman. At the time iPods were still a pretty basic device that played audio files, so why an iPod instead of say a laptop?

  • 13:44:49

    DAVIDSONWell, it was interesting because we were trying to make an experiment not in technology but in new ways of thinking. So what we did was -- this was before even iTunes U existed. There was no video. It was a music listening device. We gave them only to the first-year students, and within a week the second, third, and fourth year students said, hey, we paid Duke tuition too, why didn't give us them free, and we said, oh, my goodness, we made such a mistake, how about this. If you can convince a professor to use an iPod for an educational use in a classroom, we will give you and the professor and the other students a free iPod.

  • 13:45:23

    DAVIDSONWell, we ended up giving within one semester, more iPods to students who had come up with educational uses for them, and amazing ones, I'm happy to talk about the specifics, then we did just to the freshman for free, and we knew that. You set a challenge and people learn in a different way. But the real challenge, I mean, students did things like found a way to put a stethoscope in one ear and the iPod earbud -- board kin another, signal process and dial into the National Institute of Heart Arrhythmias, and anybody could then listen to a heart and figure out what kind of heart arrhythmia someone had just be synchronizing the signals.

  • 13:46:01

    DAVIDSONThat's transformed telemedicine by the way. A professor at Duke learned from their student and now runs a worldwide telemedicine clinic where people around the world can do that with their iPods and access top rate research.

  • 13:46:14

    NNAMDIWhat's also transformative about this is that even though the iPod program has ended, the Duke Engage program grew out of it. Tell us a little bit about that.

  • 13:46:22

    DAVIDSONYes. Because the real benefit of the iPod experiment was not that it worked on technology, but that it taught students they had something of value to offer the world. So the Duke Engage program now is a program where students take all of their book learning and they apply it to real world situations. They work collaboratively and they define the problem and solve the problem and work in groups with community members around the world to solve problems. It's a very different idea than a classroom. Achievement is solving something, it's not getting an A, and it's a very ambitious program, and student-directed program.

  • 13:47:00

    NNAMDISpeaking of students in general, and your students in particular, we got this email from Judy in Crofton, Md. "As a former student from 1993 of Professor Davidson's at Duke, I wanted to let her know how inspiring I have found her...

  • 13:47:13


  • 13:47:14

    NNAMDI...interdisciplinary career and research. My question: I just returned from Japan, and I know she has spent a lot of time there. Has she noticed any cultural differences between attention spans around the world?"

  • 13:47:25

    DAVIDSONOh, that's a great question. It's a fantastic question. Yes. There are huge cultural differences because everything about how we learn is occasioned by what our society tells us is important. So for example, there's a very famous psychologist named Nesbit who teaches at the University of Michigan who has done experiments with his students around the world and they all do the same experiment with infants and then they report back. And one of the things he found -- one experiment is called the stuffed toy experiment where you give a stuffed toy to a baby.

  • 13:48:01

    DAVIDSONIn America, or in the west, when you give the toy to the baby, you say something like, this is a toy, the stuffed toy's name is Alfred. Alfred is a monkey. You use all these nouns. If you give it to in Japan, the mother doesn't use nouns. She doesn't even name the toy. She'll say something like, this process of interaction is about love, and I bestow this love and now you thank me and bestow the love back. It's all about the process and the interactivity.

  • 13:48:30

    DAVIDSONWell, what that means is, in the west we tend to pretend, we tend to pay attention to naming things, instructions, defining things. In the east, the attention is to interaction and how...

  • 13:48:43


  • 13:48:44

    DAVIDSON...and relationships, and how groups interact. Well, that changes everything about how your organize attention if you think about it. If what you're thinking about is individual achievement versus group interaction, that organizes your world in very different ways.

  • 13:48:58

    NNAMDIOnto the telephones again, here now is Meagan in Washington, D.C. Meagan, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 13:49:06

    MEAGANHi, I love this show. Hi Kojo. Hi. I'm a -- I'm a parent of three young girls, and I'm also a parent coach which means I help parents with their kids, and everyone is in a technology stare right now, and distractions stare, right. And the kids stare down at their phones, and the parents stare down, and I find myself, right, because I feel the knee-jerk reaction right now in society is put it all away. Take it all away. Shut it all down. And I find myself thinking, this is not realistic, you know.

  • 13:49:41


  • 13:49:42

    MEAGANAnd I want to work with families to help them find as you say their way. Can you talk more about -- or what you found about family dynamics and technology, and how it can work together?

  • 13:49:55

    DAVIDSONSure. There's wonderful games available.

  • 13:49:58

    NNAMDII was about to say you've championed the use of games as a learning tool, and educational games have been around for a long time.

  • 13:50:02

    DAVIDSONYes. Yes. Thank you. There's wonderful games that involve whole families where you can play games together, but I also think that, again, there's no one-size fits all. For some families it's important to -- for anything to limit. If it were your child's nose was in a book all the time and they were excluding the family, you should be worried about that too. In other words, anything that's excessive or that you deem as a family to be excessive is something that you as a parent should intrude it, but -- and interfere and think about.

  • 13:50:34

    DAVIDSONBut I don't think it's just the technology, it's the form and the kind and the means of technology. So for example, with lots of tablet technology, there's beautiful interactive creative, not just passive, but creative programs that kids can do. I personally that we had four Rs, not reading, writing, and arithmetic which were the three Rs for the industrial age, but reading, writing, arithmetic and algorithms, which are the four Rs for the computer age.

  • 13:51:00

    DAVIDSONThere's games like -- there's computer programs like Scratch, which is a non-profit, free, an MIT professor invented it, basic programming multimedia language which would allow your child not only to learn some programming skills, but to see how programming makes images and makes sounds, and the Internet isn't just a passive thing, but allows them to contribute to the Internet. That would be an amazing thing to do with your kids, is to do some kind of basic programming like that that really gives them a sense of control over this digital age that they're gonna be shaping sometime in the future. But again, as a family we have to not be paranoid and scared, but figure out what our comfort level is.

  • 13:51:42

    NNAMDIMeagan, thank you for you call, and you should know that we will be talking kids and screen time this Thursday, the 17th of November in our 1:00 o'clock hour, so you may want to tune in for that. Again, thank you very much for your call. As I said, you champion the use of games as a learning tool, but not many have been effectively used on a major scale. How do schools begin to change that?

  • 13:52:04

    DAVIDSONRight. Well, more and more schools are and, you know, it's sad. In 1999 when the horror of Columbine happened, all kinds of really exciting research that was showing the benefit of games came to a halt and almost all of the money in games went to are video games making us -- making our kids violent.

  • 13:52:24

    NNAMDIMore violent, yes.

  • 13:52:25

    DAVIDSONAnd only in the last three or four years, and it's largely because of the MacArthur Foundation, have we started really studying what kids do. This is the least violent generation since World War II. Other things that are interesting that are very counterintuitive, a 15 year old today reads more books for fun than a 15 year old read 25 years ago. They read more books for fun than their parents read now, or then their parents read when their parents were kids.

  • 13:52:51

    DAVIDSONThere's a whole kind of literature called young adult literature which was invented by the Internet age. I mean, it's saving publishing now. Kids can read enough books. So, I mean, I think a lot of what we have to do is again, really pay attention, not pay attention to our fears, but really observe what kids are doing. This is a, you know, it's the least drug use, the least violence to themselves or to other children. A lot of great things are happening with this generation now, and some people think, oh, kids who spend the most time in social networks also spend the most face-to-face time with actual friends. It's not that one replaces another, it teaches...

  • 13:53:28

    NNAMDICounterintuitive, yes.

  • 13:53:29

    DAVIDSONIt's counterintuitive.

  • 13:53:31

    NNAMDIThat's amazing. You've talked about your lack of faith in standardized testing as a way to assess what students have learned. What do you think a better measure would be?

  • 13:53:40

    DAVIDSONWell, I just yesterday finished closing a competition that I co-direct for the MacArthur Foundation on digital media and learning. This one was called badges for lifelong learning. And we asked organizations and institutions to think about what they would count if they weren't some inherited metric of what should be tested, and we were shocked to find over 350 organizations competed in this competition, and it's everything from schools to afterschool programs to the Smithsonian Institute.

  • 13:54:09

    DAVIDSONThere's many, many huge institutions and small ones that realize that many of the inherited standardized ways that we count what counts don't really talk about our ability to collaborate, our ability to finish a project, our ability to start a project. How do you give a grade for being what's called a firestarter, that person that comes up with the brilliant idea, or the person that takes that brilliant idea and makes it work as Tim Gunn says on "Project Runway."

  • 13:54:36

    DAVIDSONThe badge competition says what if your organization didn't have inherited standardized ideas, but could invent its own ways of grading all kinds of talents that people bring to the table, and you'd find that there's hundreds of ways that we call contribute to any organization together, and if you go onto the website, you'll just see all these applications. It's all public. And what we did with the badge competition was we not only are gonna be awarding some prizes to the best ones, but we wanted people to get ideas about all the different possible ways people can count in new ways. What counts and how to count. It's an experiment. It's a wonderful, exciting experiment.

  • 13:55:15

    NNAMDIHere is Drew in Gaithersburg, Md. Drew, you're on the air. Go ahead, please. Hi, Drew, are you there?

  • 13:55:23

    DREWYes, sorry. I'm calling -- the very interesting thing -- one of your callers had mentioned about having activities, especially like the elementary school, and that sort of thing. My son is currently in Montessori in the primary level at this point, and we're hoping to send him as far as can, only the school goes up to middle school levels. But their elementary students, when they come in, their first activity is actually to go out for recess and they have activity and that sort of thing and then they start their work period, for like a half hour, 45 minutes and stuff.

  • 13:56:05

    DREWMy wife is also a Montessori teacher as well. So, of course, we're very much into that philosophy, but I see with, you know, the No Child Left Behind and all of those sorts of things, you know, incorporating that philosophy more, they did have technology in the rooms, more at the upper elementary and middle school level with a computer and that sort of thing, but they were more interested in concrete hands-on type of learning, and my feeling there is with high school level, there's only a few in the country. Those students are...

  • 13:56:47

    NNAMDIWe're running out time very quickly, so allow me to have Cathy Davidson respond with her thoughts on whether Maria Montessori was onto something.

  • 13:56:55

    DAVIDSONOh, well, I think the learning by doing is a fantastic way of learning. I mean, I wish we did more of that in all of our schools. I actually don't think that's antithetical to technology though, because if you teach kids how to make the building blocks of technology, they actually can learn by doing. You can take abstractions and turn them into 3D multimedia kinds of interactive programs and, you know, so I don't think those are antithetical at all, but boy I'm a great admirer of Montessori.

  • 13:57:22

    NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Drew. We got this email from Corrine. "I recently heard that a recruiter for the CIA went to MIT to recruit the cream of the crop. He brought back a large group to the CIA, and when he told them that they would leave and leave their electronic devices behind because they weren't allowed on campus, not one of them was interested in working there." We do have to adjust don't we?

  • 13:57:44

    DAVIDSONWe do have to adjust. I mean, if our best and our brightest aren't interested in working there, maybe we better change the workplace not think about changing the students. We're in a new era, and it's an impressive new era. We've gone through huge changes in a very, very short time and I think we've done that very, very well.

  • 13:58:02

    NNAMDII'm afraid that's all the time we have. Cathy Davidson, thank you so much for joining us.

  • 13:58:06

    DAVIDSONIt's been a pleasure. Thank you so much for having me.

  • 13:58:08

    NNAMDICathy Davidson is a professor at Duke University, and the author of numerous books. Her latest is called "Now You See It: How the Brain Science of Attention Will Transform the Way We Live, Work, and Learn." And thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

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