Recently I came across a very interesting piece of information. It appears that new research has found that humans’ attention span has been shortening. It has now fallen to about 8 seconds, 1 second shorter than a Goldfish’s attention span. That’s right, a Goldfish has a longer attention span than a modern-day human. Research has attributed this constant decline in attention to the age of smart phones, but I think we can find further causes and effects all around us. If we look at YouTube analytics, we notice that people allow the first few seconds of the video to determine whether they will watch the rest or not. In the world of advertising, you have to get your message across as quickly as possible with a minimum amount of information, in addition to being surrounded with advertisements everywhere you are. That’s all fine and dandy, but how does this affect the music world?

I think the answer is obvious. Composers will be less encouraged to take their time in developing pieces, or in starting out simple and slowly introducing main themes. Instrumentalists will be more inclined to focus on developing impressive and flashy showmanship because they see that it will bring them more attention than a patient and calculated skill-set. It is something we can already see in the music scene. Listeners would want to be gripped instantly and that puts them in a passive position. I believe the act of performing music must be in balance with the act of listening to it, the latter being an almost lost art on the audiences’ part. To be an active listener means to focus and scan for hints and clues on what the performer/composer is doing. It means to identify elements and follow a thread, a sequence of ideas, while attempting to assemble a logical understanding of the events and how they relate to each other. It is in relating what we are hearing in the present to what we heard in the close or distant past. Also, possibly using this knowledge in order to anticipate what will happen next is how we engage in active listening. A good composer or improviser knows the joys of playing on expectations, anticipations, tension, and release. But so should a
good listener.

I should make it clear that I am not passionately opposed to the technological advancements and their benefits. I could not share these thoughts with you without technology. But I think it is important to be aware of their effects on our thinking abilities. Since I have moved to Beirut, I’ve decided not to have internet in my house nor mobile internet as part of a personal experiment. The first thing I noticed is that I can focus a lot more on reading, practicing, thinking, and any other activity at hand. A huge source of distraction has been lifted. I never thought I had been that dependent on my phone and obsessed with it – reaching for it first thing in the morning and taking it with me to the bathroom like it was an essential part of my life. I am now only reachable through phone calls and SMS, which seem so outdated now that we all have WhatsApp and Facebook on all the time. I have made these two a non-serious method of communication for myself.

Why? Well for one, a shorter attention span is not something I want to have because I would like to read difficult books, watch plays and interesting movies, and listen to challenging music. I would like to be exposed to long chains of reasoning which often lead to “deep” knowledge. One way to do that, in my opinion, is to develop the patience to listen to unfamiliar music with as little expectation or anticipation as possible. Also listening to Classical music helps a lot, especially the longer works. If events might seem overwhelming at first, you can ask a musician friend to point your attention to the fact that a lot of these monumental and complex sounding classical works contain simple motifs and ideas that keep coming back in a different and developed way. This is not so obvious because of the subtle tools used in classical composition. The same applies to Jazz, so many people are attracted to Jazz, but they do not really know what to listen for or how to listen to it. There is tremendous joy in tracking a good Jazz improviser’s sequence of thoughts and linking his ideas to one another, forgiving his less clear ones and relishing in his powerful statements, just like listening to a good speech or soliloquy. Another way is to read more challenging books. Finishing a book takes more time than a movie, a play, or a piece of music and so it will undoubtedly increase our attention span.

This is also important for our social abilities. The way I define a successful dialogue, for example, is when two people start off with simple but different ideas, accept each other’s starting points and see if through a play of the intellect they can both reach a point in their thinking, that is further than their starting point. Just like in good music.
A simple idea that develops, that moves and evolves but does not lose its essence.

In his book Flow, Csikszentmihaly explains that our consciousness needs to be a closed loop and for good reasons. We need to form solid ideas, make assumptions and generalizations in order to function in everyday life. This provides the brain with the security of stability, as we can all relate how depleting it can be to deal with changes. Imagine having to take in all stimuli around us and constantly assessing things without freezing our definitions of them or shutting out other information. We would go mad. However, while it is necessary to provide the brain with this security, I would say it is also very important to be constantly open for changing one’s ideas. That does not mean abandoning them, but allowing them to expand and develop. It is a fascinating thing, because ideas in the mind are rarely if ever absolute; they rarely stand without any relation to other ideas. And so developing one idea, means other ideas need to adapt which leads to a re-arrangement of our consciousness. One of the reasons why some people seek the thrill of travelling so often is that it simply forces us to re-arrange our conscious content or be annoyed all the time.

I wonder how many people have made it so far through this article. It is another thing I have noticed that relates to this topic. Something I’ve done myself for years is fail to listen to someone talking and simply out of respect and etiquette, wait for them to finish in order to show them that I have different ideas which are equally as good or even better. Not until a few years ago did I begin to address this issue and really began trying to pay attention. Paying attention, that’s the key. It means to listen to someone’s idea as it is being expressed, not anticipating what the other will say because we believe we’ve heard something similar before. It’s a human tendency to reach into memory and project that knowledge in to the present situation, it saves us the effort of figuring things out as they are. So it seems like a good idea to try and stretch our attention-span through the arts. And if you’ve made it this far in reading, I would sure like to buy you a drink and have a nice conversation with you!

Edited by: Farah Aridi