Icon: The Noun Project

We think about “deep attention”—the ability to focus on one thing for a long period of time—as the normal way to process information. (And usually the normal way to find creative focus.) But what if it’s just the most recent paradigm for attention?

Here’s what Duke University professor N. Katherine Hayles writes in a recent paper:

Deep attention … is characterized by concentrating on a single object for long periods (say, a novel by Dickens), ignoring outside stimuli while so engaged, preferring a single information stream, and having a high tolerance for long focus times. Hyper attention is characterized by switching focus rapidly among different tasks, preferring multiple information streams, seeking a high level of stimulation, and having a low tolerance for boredom.

Deep attention is superb for solving complex problems represented in a single medium, but it comes at the price of environmental alertness and flexibility of response. Hyper attention excels at negotiating rapidly changing environments in which multiple foci compete for attention; its disadvantage is impatience with focusing for long periods on a noninteractive object such as a Victorian novel or complicated math problem.

In an evolutionary context, hyper attention no doubt developed first; deep attention is a relative luxury, requiring group cooperation to create a secure environment in which one does not have to be constantly alert to danger. Developed societies, of course, have long been able to create the kind of environments conducive to deep attention.

Educational institutions have specialized in these environments, combining such resources as quiet with an assigned task that demands deep attention to complete successfully. So standard has deep attention become in educational settings that it is the de facto norm, with hyper attention regarded as defective behavior that scarcely qualifies as a cognitive mode at all.

Is a new attentional paradigm on the way?

Image Icon: courtesy of The Noun Project

  • Mike Zachry

    My daughter and I both have ADD and I have always struggled with it being labeled a “deficit”. There are benefits to both deep and hyper attention but we only reward and teach to deep attention. There exists a yet unmet need to also teach to hyper attention.

  • Ranjit Singh

    Neither Hyper attention nor deep attention is a deficit per se.
    Having severe difficulties switching into the appropriate form of attention at will is a problem, however.
    And there will never be a time where deep attention will be irrelevant. Actually, the more complex our world becomes, the more we have to learn using deep attention.

    By the way, hyper attention is just another way of saying cognitively flexible, which in turn depends on executive functions, like self-regulation. The same functions are also helpful in maintaining deep attention. And they can be trained.

    So you don’t train one at the expense of the other, you train both when you strive to use them in their respective appropriate contexts.

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