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Single-minded or multi-tasked: What should your child do?
August 24, 2006
I was visiting friends with a high school-going son during the Football World Cup. 'Come down for dinner, Rohit,' the voice of his mother came floating up to his room. I was standing beside him looking at the television, watching the highlights. 'How many times should I shout? Tell uncle also to come down.'
The voice, loud and irritated as it was, was getting drowned in all the noise within the room.
'I am just finishing my work ma, just coming down.'
I looked at Rohit with some surprise. I knew that he was busy but didn't know that he was also 'finishing his work'. Now I noticed the books spread out in front of him and saw him actually writing what looked like some equations. But the television was on, as I said, and we had both been earlier looking at the day's best goals. The computer was also on and he seemed also to be watching some Hindi songs on youtube.com, which he had told me is the new web site to watch everything latest free of charge, forget about the piracy.
And that was not all. His head sets were in place to listen to a CD, while watching the goals and doing his homework, but he had now raised them somewhat to talk on the mobile to a friend. Only the recently acquired I-pod lay on the desk orphaned. Its sleek disk and dials seemed to shimmer accusingly, used as it was to constant attention by its master.
It took a while for Rohit to disentangle himself from all these wires, wirelesses, entrapments and other accoutrements. A jet engine pilot could have switched off all his dials and controls faster. But eventually both of us went down for Uttappam.
'It almost got cold while we waited for you, Rohit,' said his mother. Though this scold was meant for me she did not look at me directly.
'What were you up to?' asked his dad, who is a big computer engineer but feels outdated in technology now compared to the son.
'Usual stuff papa,' Rohit said, 'I was working.'
I made a big mistake at this point.
'Actually he was very busy,' I said truthfully. 'He was doing so many things -- school work, downloading a program on the computer, talking to his classmate, and god knows what else...' I said embellishing a little and adding an academic content to most of what Rohit was up to. But mid-sentence I saw a look of anguish on the faces of the parents.
'So you have seen it too. Tell me how he can excel in anything without concentration on one thing. He is always like this, doing a dozen things at once,' she said as the father watched with some embarrassment and amusement.
Like all good Indians of my generation, I too have been brought up believing that concentration is a necessary virtue. The story of Dronacharya and Arjuna was drilled into us. A condensed and modern version of the story for the young may run something like this.
The great guru Dronacharya is teaching the art and science of archery to the students. He asks them to sight a wooden bird on the branch of a tree in a distance and to knock it off with an arrow (not an instruction that Maneka Gandhi would have approved of).
'What do you see?' asks the Guru to one of his B grade students.
'I see everything Guruji,' says this lad. 'I see the field, I see the damsels bathing in the river, I see the tree, I see the fruit...'
He is dismissed and the process continues with the students sighting various objects. Finally it is Arjuna's turn, and the Guru asks: 'What do you see, great Arjuna?'
'I see the eyes of the bird, Guruji.'
'What else? How about the tree, the branch, the feathers?'
'No, I see only the eyes, sorry, only the right eye,' says Arjuna.
His concentration is so acute or his observation so limited that he is focused only on the bird, no, only the eye of the bird.
Is this sharp focus or the tunnel vision? I don't know, but we were brought up in the old school. 'One thing at a time and that done well' etc. Well, it is a different world today and a different younger generation.
Let us face it; there are simply too many diversions or distractions, if the gizmos are so seen. Television for sure, but a hundred other things. The 'always-on computer' in most homes, with its dual nature, a great tool for education no doubt, but increasingly also a great vehicle for entertainment. You can pack off the television during your son's Class X examination. Are you sure you know what he doing on the computer: being the next Bill Gates or the next Bappi Lahiri?
Then the inescapable mobile phone with the calls, the chats and the messages. And the music and the mobike and...
These are only the instruments. What about the content? Gone long ago, I guess, are the times when the only distractions that my parents were to worry about were cricket and Bollywood. Today the world is your oyster or more correctly your spoiler. Not only are there real friends, of both sexes, there are virtual friends -- many unseen but real buddies in the cyber world.
Ask your teens about myspace.com.
There is a name for a new trait which afflicts many of us in the beginning of the 21st century. It is a variation of the ADD for Attention Deficit Disorder, a real disease. Forget about concentration; we cannot pay undivided attention to anything or anyone for more than... say ten seconds. We have divided attention and on top of that, terribly limited attention spans.
What are the typical symptoms of the disorder? You know them. Channel surfing. Can we help it if the television has two hundred channels and even for a news junkie, at least ten news channels? But this is for starters. I have seen visiting VIPs juggle three mobiles, one for local calls, one for Indian calls and one unnamed but always picked up with a reverence -- party HQs perhaps or a more mysterious higher command.
Most people that I encounter normally talk with about 5 per cent attention to the live conversation: their hands are constantly playing with the mobile, their fingers caressing the remote, and their minds somewhere else on profitable ventures or passionate encounters. To be single-minded, to be attending to one thing or one person may soon be seen as an abnormality.
The question then is this: are we so constituted, the human mind so wired internally, so as to be able to do many things at once or can the brain simply not handle it? This takes us directly to neuro sciences and the state of the art research on what is 'natural' in terms of the optimum functioning of the brain. Recent studies seem to reveal some interesting findings.
I am no expert, but let me summarise. Brain imaging studies have shown that there are different ways of learning, involving different areas of the brain. Use of 'medial temporal lobe' which is what happens when you concentrate yields 'declarative learning' which is deeper.
There is also the 'habit learning' done through the 'striatum' in the brain -- it also works but differently and not so deep.
It appears that we have not reached a stage where conclusions can be drawn firmly from science on this, but research continues on the effects of our new tools and changing habits.
On the other hand, if your offspring is going to be a hot-shot executive, a banker, a journalist, or heaven forbid, a neta... then multi-tasking may not be all that bad, since that is the world that they will inhabit.
B S Prakash is India's Consul General in San Francisco and can be reached at email@example.com
Illustration: Uttam Ghosh
B S Prakash