Focus Attenuation

I recently got back into watching The Big Bang Theory after a sibling signed up to a free trial of Netflix*. If you’re not familiar with The Big Bang Theory, it’s an American comedy series based around a group of young scientists/engineers; think Friends, but more nerdy. I’m now up to Season 8 and the four young men are each now in relationships or even married; something viewers might not have envisaged happening early on. Episode 5 is called The Focus Attenuation and it sees them blaming their now non-single statuses on their lack of focus or time to pursue the intellectual projects they had envisioned some years ago.

In an effort to counter this, they decide to take some time away to knuckle down and get on with something constructive only to discover that they keep distracting themselves. The thing is, while they blamed their relationship statuses on them being distracted they continued to be distracted when away together, and their distractions were what trouble many of us, namely TV shows and films, random topics of conversation, the internet and the ability to use that to look up anything that crosses their mind in any particular moment.

They keep getting side-tracked and repeatedly turn to the internet to look something up, or to a film to confirm something they disagree over. At first they try to avoid this and even resort to the ‘rubber band technique’ but with strips of sticky tape on their forearms which get torn off each time they instigate a distraction, all to comedic effect.

However, I find it ironic, if irony is the correct term, that a distracting TV show uses the topic of distractions to keep its audience hooked and distracted from their own real world, such as mine. I even pondered the show’s use of a particular cut-scene, how that snaps you attention back to the show should it start to drift during a particular scene, and how short each scene generally is:

Okay, so many of us like to watch a bit of TV from time-to-time, but I seem to get particularly anxious about the distracting and and addictive things in life that lure me away from the things “I want/should to be doing”, and binge-watching a TV series could be one of these things.

TV isn’t the only thing because there is Youtube where something new is always being uploaded, it could be one’s phone, Facebook or Twitter, e-mails or text messages, or just Google and it’s ability to answer virtually any query we might have at any given moment, such as how many calories are in the cup of coffee I just drank. I’m even distracted writing this. It could be a special offer that arrives in the mail, snail or electronic, and we’ll find ourselves “just having a quick look” to see if there’s anything of interest to be had; there is something strangely alluring about special offers where you’re tempted into buying a bunch of things you wouldn’t normally chosen to buy, but since they’re on offer…

Of course I’ve written about this “attention” topic before and usually refer, when I do (and as I shall now), to Nicholas Carr’s 2010 book The Shallows – “How the Internet is Changing the Way We Think, Read and Remember”, or rather, it should now be “How the internet has changed the way we think, read and remember.” Walk down a street and notice all the zombies glued to their phones and you’ll be convinced of this.

I don’t think this addiction, for that is what it is, is in isolation. The ability to curb an urge to instantly turn to our devices is echoed in our urges for other things, from food (or rather, edible things) and shopping, to sexual gratification. We seek things and expect them instantly, or settle on the more immediate alternative, such as porn over a meaningful relationship, or that quick fix such as we might get from consuming something sugary or loaded with carbohydrates or caffeine. There is no more waiting, abstaining, or in the case of money, the ability to save up for things (I see this with children while I was one that could save up for things), hence the mounting debt crisis once adulthood is reached (most adults are in financial debt).

In every shop/store or petrol/gas station there is the ability to purchase a cup of coffee (as my local revamped supermarket now provides) to further toy with our sense of satisfaction, and then if you’re not already walking around with your phone stuck to your hand, you now have a paper cup stuck to it (or the other one) to provide you with a much needed crutch for the next 30 minutes or so. “I need a cup of coffee” I once heard someone call out, and I realised this wasn’t an issue of thirst.

For those of us who grew up at a time before the internet (or indeed coffee) found its way into our lives, we have this point of perspective. But for many now there can be a lack of such point of reference, and we can forget what it was like. We might also lack awareness of what it was like for people before our time, but there are ways to get a glimpse into this pre-internet world.

Old books have often been written in a completely different style. I’ve read books by Dickens and am currently reading Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. Music too has changed; The Children’s Encyclopedia (another tool to employ for this activity) has a topic in Volume 6, in a section of “Wonder” on p.4391-2 about Madrigals:

[The madrigal is a style of music] which has never been excelled … Many people at first find it difficult to enjoy this Elizabethan music, and the reason lies here. We have been accustomed to listen to one tune, which is usually at the top, but with the music of William Byrd [1543-1623] and the other Elizabethan composers we have to listen to several melodies, often with contrasting rhythms, but so written that the combine together satisfactorily. Putting it in another way, we are used to one point of interest, the tune and the harmony; but with the Elizabethans we find several points of equal interest. Each part or voice is a melody, and to enjoy it we must be able to follow not one tune and its harmonisation, but three or four or five melodies, proceeding together and yet independently.

Thus if we say that your usual way of listening is vertical – the tune and the harmony which lies beneath it – then to enjoy Byrd’s music we must listen horizontally – we must follow the course of each melody, and, at the same time, appreciate the effect gained by the combining of the melodies. This horizontal listening is not easy at first, but if we only hear enough of this fine English music we are soon able to appreciate it fully.

I consider that “madrigals” are not only a way of listening, but also a way of thinking; a way of spreading our attention “horizontally” instead of the usual, and scattered way of, vertically. “You’re not thinking fourth-dimensionally” as the Doc would tell his side-kick Marty in Back to the Future.

How might we combat this? Perhaps the act of listening to madrigal music might some way to help. Here is the first example Youtube presented to me:

*Netflix content varies by region.


  1. I love madrigals – they remind me of Bach.  Totally agree with you about binge-watching; my current binge is Grace and Frankie which has now come to an end.  Being off Facebook is helping a lot with the attention thing

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