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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

You and your short attention span

Published: March 6, 2009
Section: Arts, Etc.



So you’re at this posh party, surrounded by the future well-to-do’s of your generation. You mingle and partake in small talk with the swiftness of an experienced socialite. A few cheesy anecdotes are told, so you laugh. Some general opinions are expressed, so you follow along and nod in compliance. But then the unexpected happens. A fellow turns to you and ask a seemingly innocent, and rather simple, question—

“What are your interests?”

Before stumbling upon a stream of generic responses and clichés your mind stops to think for a moment.

Now let’s see…my interests, what I am interested in. Politics? Literature? History? All of your options seem awfully broad. You try to recall your last session scavenging the e-grounds of Wikipedia for some choice morsels of random knowledge. Eyes darting from one paragraph to the next, cursor jumping from link to link—the site had you so absorbed in its vastness of information that before you knew it an hour had passed and you were late for your biology lab.

Now surely an hour’s worth of Wiki-ing would provide you with a sufficient answer to this man’s question. But before long you realize that your web-surfing habits only demonstrate one of two things: either you’re interested in practically everything, or, practically nothing. (Or the third conclusion that you later reach—you have a mild form of ADD).

In fact, all of these explanations are justifiable (excluding maybe the third, but we all like to tell ourselves that sometimes to avoid the shameful truth).

On the one hand, your young mind feels like a conceptual sponge, sucking up all the seemingly useless, yet nonetheless fascinating information being thrown at you from all sides. At the same time, however, you’re so used to article skimming and link-hopping that you can’t maintain focus on any single body of work for more than 15 minutes at a time. It’s like your brain craves the illustrious goody bag of knowledge, preferring to sample many blips of information rather than taking on one big one that would be much harder to digest all at once.

In an age of ultra specialization, this attitude may not be the best. Although a liberal arts university could get you a B.A. in General Theory, the general consensus nowadays is that in order to obtain success, one must reach a level of super commitment and understanding in one’s very narrow field. This is no longer the age of the Renaissance Man when the “jack of all trades” mentality reigned supreme. Very few people can specialize and be successful in several fields at once; it takes an extreme focus as well as a highly attuned ability to multitask.

But surely your mild case of self-imposed ADD isn’t as bad as society makes it seem. Just watch an episode of Jeopardy or play a friendly game of Trivial Pursuit. Soon enough, the hours you spent hypnotically absorbed in Wikipedia will deem themselves worthwhile, as you snag a random $400 double jeopardy question and leave your know-it-all brother sneering in contempt.

And that posh party you attended? Well, who better to attend such a gathering than a knowledgeable fellow like yourself? You will swiftly move from one circle of people to the next, contributing your two cents to every one of the variously assorted conversation topics. You are certainly no genius, but at least you can pretend to be.

So, you intellectual, you—take that B.A. in General Theory and pocket it, because no one else knows generally more about generally everything than you generally do. Your short attention span will lead you to an accumulation of did-you-know facts that will leave party guests entertained for minutes on end.

The next time someone asks what interests you, you’ll just smile and cunningly respond, “Well, whatever’s interesting, of course.”