Distractions, Enemies of Retention

We are not constructed to pay attention to more than one thing at any given time. While there is said to be a minor amount of evidence favoring hopping from topic to topic, it seems fairly evident that when one’s attention shifts back and forth too rapidly between two things competing for attention, the result is confusion instead of clear-cut or long-lasting knowledge.

Let us be general in the definition of distractions, and call them “all things which interfere with our primary purpose.”

Many of the causes of our being easily distracted stem from early life. A person often guides his whole life by some searing experience of his early childhood, now forgotten consciously. As he grows up, the experience tags along in the subconscious, producing a proneness to distraction.

The effects of past events from infancy (and perhaps before), through childhood and adolescence are far too complex to discuss here. From what is partially known at the present time, the writer has drawn an interesting conclusion which could, if proved correct, greatly alter the proportional attention given in our education system all along the line, from pre-school to post-graduate levels.

Fig. 7. Postulated Primogenic role of early periods of life in one’s “destiny”

Briefly, the writer detects a principle of influence of events upon our lives, which seems to indicate that early events do more to shape one’s life than later ones. Put another way, if two similar events should occur in one’s life, the one which occurred earlier in life would, in the broadest sense, have more influence. If this is true and if we want to produce a love of self-education among our people, we shall have to give far more attention to this in working with the pre-school and elementary school child. We should have top-notch experts in the lower levels of the education system and settle for mediocre ones later on; we could finally dispense with teachers entirely in college, having extensive libraries and laboratories, with graduates defending their investigations in conferences. By this method, students would be eager and much more self-propelled when they reach college. The name coined for this “right-side-up” educational system’s central idea is “Primogens.”

The primogens principle is illustrated in Fig. 7. The broad outlines of the arrows running from successive periods of life to the sphere shown at the right indicate, by their shading, the relative importance they have in influencing the total life-accomplishments of various periods of life. Beginning at the left in prenatal life and infancy, the core of the sphere at the right is formed, with its important later influences running out to the subsequent layers of the sphere. As each period of life is lived, it exerts less influence than the ones before, although its effect is still great. As a person ages, his activities are built upon what went before, with whatever modifications can be made through effort. The early influence of prenatal life, infancy, and pre-school childhood is not fixed or permanent because the basic assumptions laid down can be modified. However, it becomes less and less easy to modify the influences of the inner layers. That they can be modified and improved at all is one of the great assumptions of our educational system.

This, then, is why one person might be more easily distracted from his primary purpose than another. Now let us see in what ways distractions impede our efforts to learn:

  1. Mechanically, they rob us of precious minutes which we are unable to make up except at the expense of something else.
  2. Mentally, they seem to produce interference with whatever process causes things to stick in our minds.
  3. We gain a false sense of accomplishment from a long session with the books, because distractions may actually have nullified a lot of that time.
  4. After one has taken an exam, and has done poorly because of distractions while studying, his self-confidence is badly undermined.

Here are some of the methods of defeating distracting influences:

  1. If the distractions are caused by someone (or something) beyond our control, such as noise which we cannot ask to have stopped, it is logical to find a quieter place to study — possibly in a study hall or the library. Too few students register legitimate complaints, but there are anonymous channels if one takes the trouble to seek out a responsible person with authority to enforce “quiet hours.”
  2. If the distraction comes from within yourself, possibly you are distracted because the objects within range of your eyes — photographs, souvenirs, and mementos — are reminding you of past events or home and family and friends. Temporarily, at least, clear such objects away. If the problem still persists, try one of these:
    1. Review your personal incentives, and pep up your motivation at this point. Re-reading earlier sections of this book might help.
    2. If the source of concern seems to be unfinished business (to be discussed under “Memory Training” later), try to settle the question. A short discussion of the problem with a friend might help you unravel and dismiss it by shedding a new light upon it.
    3. If you still are unable to get the distraction out of your mind, here is a trick which has been used successfully many times: Write out the problem in a few short sentences, and then write down the two or three major alternative solutions. Then write this: “This is the problem, and these are the possible solutions. I can’t do anything more to settle this matter until tomorrow at 4 P.M.” Then fold the paper and place it carefully in a drawer where, if the trick works for you, you will find it a week from next Thursday!
  3. Worrying about how you are doing in a course often hampers good mental retention. Why not see your instructor from time to time to learn where you stand? Even bad news may be better than no news, as far as getting down to work is concerned, because you may be wondering whether you could ease up, and not study quite so hard.
  4. Multiple worries. Psychologists have observed that if a child is frightened by a loud noise made as a white rat is presented, it may then also show fright when a white rabbit or even cotton is presented, or even non-similar things — a kind of spread of the initial anxiety to other things. It is even possible that this spread accounts for a general feeling of worry. Occasionally a student brings forth a long list of worries, as if one big one has spread to other things. This affliction I professionally diagnose as “the multiple worries.”

This last is more a wry remark than a ridiculing one. The person so afflicted actually can become quite upset if someone does not come to the rescue. What can be done? Most of us have had days when things all went wrong, and we can readily sympathize. Probably much more than sympathy is needed:

If you find that you begin to jump from one worry to another, and are unable to escape a feeling of being overwhelmed, it is high time you visit the counseling center. If that is impossible, find someone whom you respect and with whom you can discuss all the things that are bothering you. More than getting just sympathy, which itself is a great boon, you will probably get some intelligent questions from this person, and by giving the answers you will bring things back into focus. The end result should be that you can push most of the problems off for another time or put them into little compartments walled off from the present business of burying yourself in your books.

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