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Mind Games

Who decided that reading a novel for hours is better than surfing Web pages for hours?



The end of the world (as anyone older than 40 would know) began in class with a question by one of the authors: "What if your generation is trying to medicate us, so we think like you?"

Class discussion had drifted to how medicines such as Ritalin and Concerta control the behavior of hundreds of thousands of young adults diagnosed with attention-deficit (hyperactivity) disorder (ADHD). The use of mood-altering prescriptions is not startling. The scope, however, is: In 2003 the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated that between 5.5 percent and 6.5 percent of Virginians younger than 17 were taking these drugs. We suspect that figure has grown.

"Children with ADHD," Concerta's manufacturer notes, "have difficulty attending to most tasks for extended periods of time. But they can concentrate on things that are interesting and stimulating, such as computer games."

We're not neuroscientists or psychologists, but we worry that parents and educators ignore the obvious: It's not behavior changing, but minds. Both of us, from two very different generations, agree that young people are easily bored, do not read much and live in dense social networks that take priority over other activities.

What if the causes of this generational difference are societal and technological?

Joe Essid: These drugs purportedly improve attention spans to encourage success in the American meritocracy. Whatever one's score in "Halo 3," success means a degree from the right university and a proven set of skills.

Typing "ADHD video games" in Google provides a number of peer-reviewed studies indicating that heavy use of video games or television exacerbates symptoms of ADHD. More controversial research indicates a nightmarish possibility: the physical structure of young brains may be permanently altered by frequent exposure to such media.

Is our "infotainment" culture breeding a species of Homo Xboxiens?

Laura Noges: Kids seem to flit easily and happily from one activity to the next. Their attention moves between multiple, ongoing forms of communication. At once a child's mind can be divided among cell phone, e-mail inbox, several Web pages, a video game, television, music and the intermittent snippets of conversation with parents, yelled across the house. All this is going on at the same time!
It's incredible how many attention-demanding things youngsters can juggle at once. In effect, the "young mind" has multitasking abilities far beyond the capabilities of the "old mind." So now, I ask: Which is more appropriate and necessary today, given the breakneck pace of our lives -- the ability to focus intently for a long period of time or the ability to multitask constantly?AÿAÿAÿAÿAÿAÿAÿAÿAÿAÿAÿ
Essid: To begin to answer you, I'll turn to poet and software designer Michael Joyce. I've often quoted him when he wondered if "a sustained attention span may be less useful than successive attendings."

The world is changing rapidly, and we old folks, faced with the belated arrival of Toffler's "Future Shock," may be stumbling in many ways. We are the final generation not native to networked computers. We pretend to be adept, but we often struggle with file attachments, document conversions and protocols for leaving commentary on blogs. I made the transition to multitasking, but I'm a geek who can do two things concurrently, three in crisis mode and with a notable loss of quality control.

At the same time, I'm in a field that regards "sustained attention" as essential to good academic work. This disconnect, between what education and the work force demand and the "wiring" young people possess, creates a gap that is neurological, not merely cultural. Enter the happy pills.

Noges: Yes, and these happy pills are over-prescribed, overused, and overrated. Old minds may deem young minds unnatural. AŸ.飼.飼飼飼A,飼 thus the prescribed medication. Young minds could argue that their elders' habits are what's unnatural in an era more suited to agile, multitasking, technology-age brains. Who decided that reading a novel for hours is better than surfing Web pages for hours? What varies is focused attention on one matter and divided attention among many matters. I've even played a game with my friends that begins on one Wikipedia topic page, then maneuvers through the Wiki links to an unrelated goal that was selected by the challenger. I once made it from "chocolate chips" to "Boeing 757." Talk about divided attention!

Think about how useful these skills are in the workplace. Doctors rush from patient to patient, juggling many case histories in their minds at once. Financial advisers constantly monitor politics, the stock market, business news and their clients' wishes. In any profession, nowadays, hundreds of things are brought to a person's attention each hour: media updates, phone calls, e-mail messages, visitors and emergencies pile on top of an already busy work schedule.

Although I personally prefer novels to the Web, times have changed, technology rules, and young minds have adapted. Medications for ADHD and similar conditions are stunting this technological evolution of society.

Essid: I detect echoes of Bob Dylan in Laura's last remark. I'm no weatherman, but I can tell those my age which way the wind is gonna blow. A century ago, our bodies and psychology made an unprecedented adaptation to the coming of easily available electric light. I'm certain that some clung to oil lamps and lamented this new reality.

Still, we elders need not fear the future, and perhaps we should try, without being patronizing, to comprehend, not medicate, the world of those younger than us. We all have a good deal invested in these young minds. They will confront converging and related geopolitical, environmental and social problems with their new mental habits. When I see the energy and talent they bring to volunteering, to writing for my class wiki (no papers for this professor) to maintaining strong relationships with friends and family, I'm encouraged.
This generation gap can be bridged quickly if we old fogies stop trying to morph youth into us, avoid prescribing these chemicals except in extreme cases, and, to use a term from the generation after mine, try lightening up at bit.

There's a well-known phrase from another time of change. It reminds elders about at-times undecipherable youth: "The kids are all right." S

Joe Essid teaches English at the University of Richmond. Laura Noges, a rising senior, was enrolled in his "Invented Worlds" course.
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