Matthew Ryan Williams for The Chronicle
To complete her homework assignment, Meran Hill needed total concentration. The University of Washington senior shut the blinds in her studio apartment. She turned off the music. She took a few deep breaths.
Then she plunged into the task: Spend 15 minutes doing e-mail. Only e-mail, and nothing else.
Soon enough, though, a familiar craving bubbled up. For some people, the rabbit hole of Internet distraction begins with cat videos. For Ms. Hill, who calls herself "a massive weather geek," it starts with a compulsion to check conditions in outer space.
As Ms. Hill plowed through e-mails, the voice beckoned: If I could only just leave and go to Spaceweather.com ...
But the assignment had her trapped. After a while, she says, staying on e-mail felt more natural.
The e-mail drill was one of numerous mind-training exercises in a unique class designed to raise students' awareness about how they use their digital tools. Colleges have experimented with short-term social-media blackouts in the past. But Ms. Hill's course, "Information and Contemplation," goes way further. Participants scrutinize their use of technology: how much time they spend with it, how it affects their emotions, how it fragments their attention. They watch videos of themselves multitasking and write guidelines for improving their habits. They also practice meditation—during class—to sharpen their attention.
Their professor, David M. Levy, sees these techniques as the template for a grass-roots movement that could spur similar investigations on other campuses and beyond. Mr. Levy hopes to open a fresh window on the polarized cultural debate about Internet distraction and information abundance.
At its extreme, that debate plays out in the writing of authors whom the critic Adam Gopnik has dubbed the Never-Betters and the Better-Nevers. Those camps duke it out over whether the Internet will unleash vast reservoirs of human potential (Clay Shirky) or destroy our capacity for concentration and contemplation (Nicholas Carr).
On college campuses, meanwhile, educators struggle to manage what the Stanford University multitasking researcher Clifford Nass describes as a radical shift in the nature of attention. Mr. Nass, who lives in a freshman dormitory as a "dorm parent," sees that shift on students' screens. They write papers while toggling among YouTube and Facebook and Spotify. They text and talk on smartphones. They hang out in lounges where the TV is on.
Amid this scampering attention, some fear for the future of long-form reading. That was a theme of a keynote speech at this year's conference of the American Historical Association by the group's departing president, William J. Cronon, a professor at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. Speaking to a ballroom of book-worshiping professors, the environmental historian expressed his anxiety about what he called "the Anna Karenina problem."
Within 20 years, he wondered, will students manage to muster the dozens of hours of attention necessary to get through a lengthy novel like Tolstoy's 19th-century classic? If not, what does that mean for works of history that are even harder to read?
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When I ask Mr. Cronon what prompted him to stress that issue, he points to an encounter that illustrates the peril to the discipline of history:
A young man came up to him after a lecture he gave at another university. The talk had presented the themes of a 500- to 800-page book that Mr. Cronon is writing about the history of a small Wisconsin town, called Portage, from the glacier to the present. The young man told the historian how much he liked the lecture, but lamented that he could never read the book. Looking sad and ashamed, he said he had never read anything that lengthy.
But Mr. Levy, a professor in the Information School at University of Washington, sees a problem with many discussions about what technology is doing to our minds.
"So many of those debates fail to even acknowledge or realize that we can educate ourselves, even in the digital era, to be more attentive," he says. "What's crucial is education."
The education of Mr. Levy's students begins with meditation: a short session at the start of every class.
I visited his classroom one recent Thursday to watch the ritual unfold.
Fourteen students—tech-savvy people working toward information-related degrees—join Mr. Levy at a series of desks arranged in a square. Shortly after 3:30 p.m., the professor removes his watch. He picks up a bowl-shaped bell. He pings the bell three times, slowly, with a short brown stick.
Mr. Levy, 62, settles into a dignified stillness, honed over decades of practice. Each year he travels to Mexico and to Bellingham, Wash., for weeklong retreats where participants meditate in silence, morning to night. A practicing Jew, he also withdraws from technology for a weekly Sabbath, a period of staying offline that lasts from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday. If all this makes you picture a crunchy hippie, don't. With his slight smile and sad eyes, gentle voice and sensible sweater, Mr. Levy comes across more like a Manhattan psychiatrist.
As the chimes from his bell fade, the classroom fills with silence. One student sits cross-legged with her palms facing up. Another rests her chin, prayerlike, on clasped hands. Another stares with a bemused expression. The only sounds come from outside—the squawk of a bird, the bang of a door.
All Photos by Matthew Ryan Williams for The Chronicle
Those who happen to glance into this seminar, in Room 420 of Mary Gates Hall, might wonder whether the students had fallen asleep.
Just the opposite: Meditation sharpens their focus. The practice, as Mr. Levy teaches it, involves repeatedly bringing your attention back to your breathing as the mind wanders away. Think of it like lifting weights. Just as you can build up your biceps by doing reps, he says, meditation can strengthen attention.
There's nothing novel about this. As Mr. Levy has written, many cultures, over thousands of years, have developed techniques to still the mind and cultivate attention. Scientists like Jon Kabat-Zinn and technologists like Google's Chade-Meng Tan have brought meditation into medicine and business, and now Mr. Levy is doing likewise in education.
His methods are secular but inspired by Buddhist tradition. Buddhism 101: Suffering is an inescapable part of life. You can avoid some of it. Much angst stems from failing to be aligned with the present moment, as the mind cycles through anxieties about past and future. Meditation trains the mind to focus on the present. Mr. Levy points out that other traditions besides Buddhism have reached similar conclusions. Ancient Greek schools of philosophy, for example, taught exercises designed to bring the student into fuller engagement with the present moment, according to Pierre Hadot, a French philosopher.
At first some students find it weird to meditate beside their classmates. "I'm sitting next to this person," says Ms. Hill. "We can't say anything to each other. We just made awkward eye contact. What now?" It gets weirder. In addition to meditating at desks, students also practice walking meditation in the halls, which, as Ms. Hill jokes, probably appears to bystanders "a bit like the zombie apocalypse."
But meditation works like an eraser that rubs out the mental chatter you carry up the stairs to class, says another student, Michael J. Conyers. "It opens me up to where now I can give my full attention to this guy."
"This guy"—Mr. Levy—is one of the more unusual characters thinking about education and technology.
After attending New York's Stuyvesant High School and Dartmouth College, he earned a Ph.D. in computer science at Stanford in 1979, specializing in artificial intelligence. But AI's rational, computational vision of humanity felt limited. He dropped it and moved to London to study calligraphy and bookbinding.
Mr. Levy eventually found a base to pursue his interests in old and new technologies: Xerox's Palo Alto Research Center. In the 1970s, the think tank had developed the first fully networked personal computer. As a researcher there in the 80s and 90s, Mr. Levy focused on the transition from paper to digital documents.
But as digital tools gained momentum in the 90s, he started to wonder whether technologies sold as tools of connection were also disconnecting people from themselves and one another. Cellphones, e-mail, Internet—all of it accelerated life. That contrasted with the stillness and focus Mr. Levy cultivated in meditation.
How could people live balanced lives in the middle of these technologies?
After Mr. Levy moved to University of Washington, in 2001, that was the question he took into the classroom.
For his students, though, some of the most interesting results happen outside of class, as they use Mr. Levy's methods to analyze and change their often unconscious tech habits.
On the second floor of Trabant, a coffee shop near campus, Ms. Hill pops open her MacBook Air to show me how the process works.
She loves technology but would like to be better at setting boundaries, which is difficult in part because she's so busy. In addition to pursuing a double major in psychology and informatics, she interns for a consulting-and-marketing company and works as a teaching assistant.
Her iPhone, almost an extension of her hand, constantly beckons. When she first got a smartphone, she and her friends would go out to lunch and sit there in silence, glued to their gadgets.
"I started to realize that it was really making me sad," says Ms. Hill, who has short brown hair, a hoop-shaped nose ring, and a tendency to pantomime her thoughts with her hands as she speaks. "I was involved in all these cool social circles on Facebook, but it was so lonely. I would get all of my social energy out of a computer."
She managed to dial down that Facebook addiction, but she remained an obsessive e-mail checker—until Mr. Levy's class started to change her habits. It began with an assignment that required students to spend 15 minutes to half an hour each day observing and logging their e-mail behavior. The idea, an outgrowth of meditation, is to note what happens in the mind and body.
Can they notice the initial impulse to check e-mail? What are they thinking and feeling at that point? What emotional reactions do they have the moment they set eyes on the inbox? How does their posture and breathing change as they e-mail?
After observing their own behavior for a week, students write a two- to three-page reflection on what they saw.
In the process, they tend to discover what works for them. They learn how strong their attention is at different times. They see how e-mail provokes pleasure, anxiety, even hatred.
Ms. Hill was flabbergasted to find out how frequently she checked e-mail. She checked it right after waking up. She checked it riding the bus, crossing campus, climbing stairs, sitting in class, eating dinner. She checked it up to 25 times a day, just on her phone. For each new message, her phone vibrated. It stressed her out. Often the alerts concerned unimportant messages from e-mail lists.
She was reacting to robots.
Then came another assignment: "e-mail meditation." This meant concentrating only on e-mail for 15 minutes or so at a stretch. No answering the phone. No texting. No checking the weather in space.
When the mind wandered, students were instructed to refocus their attention on the e-mail, just as they bring their attention back to the breath in traditional meditation.
Each student wrote up personal e-mail guidelines. Ms. Hill realized that she hadn't been paying close enough attention to important messages as she tapped out one rapid-fire reply after another. She removed her university e-mail account from her phone, so it wouldn't tempt her, and started handling e-mail in batches several times a day.
"For me, that type of hyperfocus really worked," she says of the e-mail meditation. "If I'm just constantly dipping out of my own life to go check my e-mail, and not giving my life or the e-mail full focus, it's almost like a waste of time."
On her laptop, Ms. Hill opens up software called Camtasia to show me another behavior she's trying to improve: multitasking.
Camtasia records what happens on her screen as Ms. Hill uses the computer. Meanwhile, hidden from view, it also deploys her Web cam to film her: her posture; her expression; and her physical environment, like the acoustic guitar and green couch visible over her shoulder.
Mr. Levy's students use the software to record 15-minute multitasking sessions. It's the first of multiple exercises aimed at teaching them to multitask more mindfully, by noticing the desire to switch activities and deciding whether to follow it.
When students play back the Camtasia recording, they see what was happening on their screens with their own faces displayed in a corner. They watch themselves flit among Words With Friends, e-mail, Words With Friends, Spotify, Words With Friends, and that goofy video of a cat rolling up against a sake bottle.
Some are disturbed to observe that they got so distracted they forgot to work on the main task they had set out to accomplish, like reading an article.
Ms. Hill clicks play.
"Look at my face—I do not look happy," she says. "My posture is like this." She slouches her shoulders, aping what she sees in the video. The video shows her switching among e-mail, the Web, and PDFs. Three minutes in, her phone chirps. A new text message!
She leans back, smiling.
"The emotional quality of what I'm doing on the computer screen is so, like, negative," she says. "And then what's happening on my cellphone screen is so incredibly positive. It's like this back-and-forth thing, almost like I'm switching rooms, you know?"
In the recording, another text message interrupts her. And another.
That happens four times over the 15-minute session.
Ms. Hill sips her tea and giggles at the video.
"I don't know how I get anything done," she says.
All this breathing and self-observation may sound goofy, but Mr. Levy grounds it in science.
Last year he and a team of colleagues reported the results of a National Science Foundation-backed experiment that combined meditation with multitasking.
The subjects were human-resource managers. Some got meditation training, and others did not. They were then asked to complete tasks, such as scheduling a meeting, amid a barrage of interruptions from e-mail, instant messages, phone calls, and knocks on the door.
The results: Those who had received meditation training were less fragmented in their work, switching tasks less frequently and spending more time on each one. They also showed less stress and better memory. The experiment was the latest in a growing pile of neuroscientific studies to find that meditation may improve emotional regulation and attention.
Other research highlights the cognitive costs of not paying attention. Ulrich Mayr, a professor of psychology at the University of Oregon, studies multitasking. When Stanford convened a conference on that subject in 2009, he emphasized that "multitasking is actually rapid task switching, since the human brain does just one thing at a time."
In a phone interview, I ask him to elaborate. Mr. Mayr offers the example of watching television while doing homework from a textbook. While you're trying to follow a story on television, you won't be doing your homework, he says, and while doing your homework, you won't get the TV story. Simple as that.
What's more, he says, you pay a price for switching—with moments of mental "dead time" unproductive for either task. For every activity, your brain must reconfigure itself to do a constellation of things required for the type of task. Keeping track of a TV show, for instance, involves activating brain areas that deal with visual inputs as well as consulting long-term memory to retrieve what you know about the characters. Want to switch to math problems? A different set of brain areas must come together. And writing the equations on paper for homework takes yet another set for motor output.
All of that carries implications for teaching. The cost of classroom multitasking, he says, can be a failure to learn.
Say a professor presents new concepts. To understand the ideas, students need to link them to things they already know, creating a network of associations that Mr. Mayr describes as "a rich knowledge structure." That happens only if they pay attention and think about the lesson.
If a student listens to the professor with one ear while surfing Facebook, Mr. Mayr says, "I'm 100 percent certain that that critical process of creating new knowledge structures is not happening in the student's head."
What's tricky is that someone who does surf the Web while listening to a lecture will very likely have the impression of doing just fine, Mr. Mayr says. That's because our minds lay a trap. All content in long-term memory is represented in two ways: "as a sense of familiarity on the one hand, and whether or not you truly understand it."
People often mistake familiarity for understanding. They open the textbook after getting home from a lecture, and they recognize the material. They think: I get this. Then they take a test—and bomb it.
Another researcher, Mr. Nass, of Stanford, has found that people who chronically multitask are less able to focus and worse at managing working memory. They're also worse at switching between tasks.
"The thing that one would assume is at the heart of multitasking, they're actually quite bad at," Mr. Nass says. "It shocked the hell out of me."
Mr. Mayr, however, cautions against drawing the conclusion that multitasking weakens attention. If anything, he says, it's probably the opposite: People whose attention doesn't function well in the first place are probably most susceptible to the lure of distracting stimuli.
The big question—whether multitasking changes how our brains work—remains unanswered, he says. That's because it's difficult to study. Ideally you would run a controlled experiment over several years, with one group of kids multitasking as usual and a control group of kids not exposed to those distractions. But it's basically impossible to create that control group.
Mr. Levy, meanwhile, is encouraging other colleges to bring age-old contemplative practices to their wired campuses. (He isn't the only one: The Center for Contemplative Mind in Society, a nonprofit group, has for years supported such efforts in higher education.) He has visited other campuses, giving public lectures, running training workshops for faculty and staff, and meeting with students to discuss their online behavior.
Back in his own class, Mr. Levy pings the bell once more to signal the end of meditation and the start of discussion. Students rub their eyes. They shift positions. One cracks his back.
The students begin to debate a series of readings on multitasking. These include a feature in Scientific American Mind about the discovery of "Supertaskers"—a tiny sliver of humanity who multitask with ease—as well as a report from that 2009 multitasking seminar at Stanford.
The Stanford report strikes notes of urgency. Mr. Levy points his students to one section in particular: a plea for guidance to help the public handle its concerns about the effects of multitasking on education and family life.
"I don't think that we have to just wait for the longitudinal studies in order to figure some stuff out," the professor tells the students. "What we're doing in this course is figuring some things out for ourselves."
A selection of readings from a course taught by David M. Levy at the University of Washington
Introduction to Contemplative Practice
Wherever You Go, There You Are: Mindfulness Meditation in Everyday Life, by Jon Kabat-Zinn (pages 3-19)
Alfred W. Kaszniak, "Contemplative Pedagogy: Perspectives From Cognitive and Affective Science," in Contemplative Approaches to Learning and Inquiry Across Disciplines
Smart or Stupid?
Adam Gopnik, "The Information: How the Internet Gets Inside Us," The New Yorker (2011)
Sherry Turkle, Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other (2011; pages 151-170)
Jane McGonigal, Reality Is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World (2011; introduction and conclusion)
Warren Thorngate, "On Paying Attention" (1988) in Recent Trends in Theoretical Psychology (1993; pages 247-263)
Antoine Lutz, Heleen A. Slagter, John D. Dunne, and Richard J. Davidson, "Attention Regulation and Monitoring in Meditation," Trends in Cognitive Sciences (2008; pages 163-169)
Stephen R. Barley, Debra E. Meyerson, and Stine Grodal, "E-Mail as Source and Symbol of Stress," Organization Science (2010)
Linda Stone, "Just Breathe: Building the Case for Email Apnea," Huffington Post (2008)
Galen Cranz, The Chair: Rethinking Culture, Body, and Design (1998; chapters 3-4)
"Is All That Sitting Really Killing Us?," The New York Times, "Room for Debate" (2010)
Chade-Meng-Tan, Search Inside Yourself: The Unexpected Path to Achieving Success, Happiness and World Peace (2012; Meng, as he is known, founded Google's mindfulness course, "Search Inside Yourself.")
David M. Levy, "No Time to Think: Reflections on Information Technology and Contemplative Scholarship," Ethics and Information Technology (2007)
Claudia Wallis, "The Impacts of Media Multitasking on Children's Learning and Development" (2010; report from research seminar, Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop)
Victor M. González and Gloria Mark, "'Constant, Constant, Multi-Tasking Craziness': Managing Multiple Working Spheres" (2004; paper presented at Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems)
David L. Strayer and Jason M. Watson, "Supertaskers and the Multitasking Brain" (2012), Scientific American Mind (pages 22-29)
David M. Levy, Jacob O. Wobbrock, Alfred W. Kaszniak, and Marilyn Ostergren, "The Effects of Mindfulness Meditation Training on Multitasking in a High-Stress Information Environment" (2012; paper presented at Graphics Interface Conference)
David M. Levy, "More, Faster, Better: Governance in an Age of Overload, Busyness, and Speed" (2006; First Monday)
Judith Shulevitz, The Sabbath World: Glimpses of a Different Order of Time (2010)
"The Unplugged Challenge," The New York Times (2010)
Sabbath Manifesto (Web site)