Attention Deficit Disorder: a cultural phenomenon?

It got so bad that we finally posted signs throughout the office:  Please turn off cell phones during your visit with the doctor.  Still they persisted.  Parents and adolescents alike would reach for their phone when the jingle sounded, mumbling an apology as they flipped open the device:  “Sorry, I forgot.”


For me the students were the last straw.  A number of them had telephoned the office, asking if they might arrange a time to shadow me and observe my interactions with patients.  They were required to log so many hours of observation prior to launching into their clinical rotations.


The students came on separate days.  Each laid her coat on the extra chair in my office.  Each extracted her cell phone from the pocket, placed it on the chair and proceeded to check it periodically.  If the phone buzzed or beeped, the student would snatch it up and quickly peer at the incoming number.  Sometimes they text-messaged an immediate reply; sometimes they actually took the call.  “Sorry,” they’d say, “I’ve got to answer this one.  It’s important.”


What they were really saying, of course, was that their call was more important than the educational discussion at hand.  Even though I had granted their request and carved out time in my already busy schedule for them, their time was more important than my time.  For the sake of their convenience, I had unwittingly agreed to inconvenience myself.


Maggie Jackson sheds light on this cultural phenomenon in her recently published book, Distracted: the erosion of attention and the coming dark age.  In Jackson’s view, an inability to focus our attention on the task at hand has become a widespread social problem.  We constantly face distractions throughout our day. Jackson believes that we need to relearn how to think deeply and filter out these distractions in our day to day existence.


Contemporary culture has devolved into narcissism.  Each of us has chosen to go his own way.  You might say that, as a society, we have developed widespread attention deficit disorder.  Collectively, we have lost the ability to wrestle with issues on a deeper level.  We skim the headlines, check the stats, glimpse the twitter, then cut and run.  Although the lake of available information has grown exponentially, for many of us this body of knowledge remains shallow indeed.


Our English word attention derives from the Latin, attendere:  to stretch toward something or someone.  It takes a certain amount of effort to attend to another person.  Paying attention to the patient is one of the basic tenets of empathetic medical care.  When we focus on what another person is telling us, we send a covert message through our posture and eye contact that we value that person as a human being.  Contrariwise, when we brush them off we give the subliminal signal that we really don’t care.  In the common vernacular, we exhibit rude behavior.


Attention skills can be cultivated by practicing the art of observation.  Exposure to the natural world works as well as a dose of medication to improve concentration.  Harvard researchers demonstrated that physically fit children did better academically on standardized achievement tests.  The New York Times reports that a recent study published in the journal Pediatrics found that the attention span of school-aged children improved after physical activity on the playground.


Thirty-eight years ago as an undergraduate student I wrote a paper on the value of athletic activity in the liberal arts curriculum.  My premise was that regular organized physical activity enhanced the student’s academic performance and sharpness of thought.  At that time there was little original research to support my thesis.  Reading through the Times article, I now feel somewhat vindicated.


And as for the students, those presently knocking on my door seeking opportunities to fulfill their prerequisites, I am sorry to report that their pleas have lately fallen on deaf ears.  I’ve decided that I need some quality time to sit down and think about it.


One should not enter into such contractual relationships without giving it a good deal of thought—preferably with no distractions.


6 comments on “Attention Deficit Disorder: a cultural phenomenon?

  1. Ken DeBarth says:

    Love your writing!
    I am attending school away from home this winter. Each day at 3:30, five SUV’s gather at the corner in front of my apartment. Shortly after a school bus stops and children disembark. The children, all wearing iPod earbuds, climb into the SUV’s where women (I assume mothers) are all talking on cell phones, and the SUV’s drive off. Every day. All the children and all the women always the same each in their own electronic world.
    We have never been more connected, and we have never been more isolated.
    Ken DeBarth
    “Outer Banks PA”

  2. Brian says:

    Many thanks for your feedback and insightful observations, Ken.

    Every technological advance carries both blessing and curse. How wonderful that we can tap into each other’s thoughts through cyberspace; how tragic that in our busy lives oftimes we fail to reach out and touch the souls of those next to us.

    And our isolation does not stop there. Sadly, modern man has become isolated from himself as well.

    Best wishes,


  3. Oscar Houck says:

    I work with kids every day as a high school teacher. I can tell you from the front lines that things will only get worse with the coming generation, the first one raised on computers. Not only do most or all of these kids suffer from an addiction to screens and games, instant click of a mouse gratification, phones and Ipods and the lack of attention that comes with these “necessities”, they are, as a general rule, rude and just plain obnoxious. They may live in an information age but there is no received wisdom to guide them. What our parents referred to as good manners have fallen to the wayside, the way, wayside. A polite child is such an exception that I find myself fawning over them, wishing that cloning were an option in this one instance. There is certainly such a thing as a nature or natural world deficit disorder and I’d like nothing better than to load them all on a bus – no phones, no computers, no Ipods – and have them experience a weekend in the wild, in the quiet wild. The withdrawal symptoms probably wouldn’t be pretty but stillness or simply walking a mountaintop I’m convinced would do wonders. There’s a world out there they know nothing about. Thoreau would shudder in his walking shoes.

    Best, Oscar Houck

    • Brian says:

      Thanks for posting your astute comments, Oscar.

      Sadly, what you write about your students’ behavior seems to have become the norm in western culture. Still, there’s hope for them, because obviously they have a teacher who’s aware of these issues and cares enough to try to turn the tide.

      In “Walden” Thoreau wrote that “we need the tonic of wildness.” We could all benefit from a few more mountain top experiences these days.

      Ex animo,


  4. Dr. Benjamin Barankin says:

    This is yet another brilliant piece, and a major annoyance in my practice. I’ve tried several, all unsatisfactory, ways to address this rude behaviour, but sadly it is a reflection of our times…thanks for expressing our collective annoyance & dismay so eloquently.

    • Brian says:

      Thanks for your feedback and kind words, Ben.

      Obviously, cell phone rudeness in medical offices is not confined within the borders of the United States.


      Dr. Benjamin Barankin practices dermatology in Canada. He, along with Dr. David Elpern, is co-founder of the online journal “Dermanities,” a open-access publication dedicated to humane medical practice in dermatology. Interested readers can peruse the latest issue here:

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