Wednesday, September 30, 2009


by Michael Dymmoch

Every now and then I turn on Dr. Phil for company while I do some chore that doesn’t require concentration. Dr. Phil is primarily an entertainer, but like Oprah, he does more good than not. At any rate, the last time I "watched" he had a twenty-something woman on who was having trouble remembering details of her friends' lives. She worried that she was suffering memory impairment. Dr. Phil told her the problem wasn't with her memory, but with her attention. Trying to attend to too much at once can wreck havoc with one's ability to set down long term memories. To demonstrate, he had his audience all talk at once, then asked the woman what was being said. She couldn't say. Too much noise drowning out the signal.

It seems to me that our culture as a whole suffers from this malady. Texting while driving is only the most obvious symptom. When was the last time you went out for a beer or pizza and there weren't two or three TV sets blaring around the room? I had dinner with my son at Lou Malnati's last night, and although the sound was off, the constantly changing pictures on the TV screens were eye magnets that kept interrupting the calm flow of our conversation. A few months ago a friend and I dined at Maggiano's. We won't go there again. The music was Frank Sinatra, which I don't have strong feelings for or against, but it was loud enough to make conversing a challenge. Billboards today don't just shout out their messages, they flash them on giant screen TVs. Cars come equipped with DVD players--heaven forbid someone should have to pay attention to mere scenery, or start conversations with fellow passengers. And you can't get gas at many gas stations without being assailed by TV-talking gas pumps. Ads assault you on public buses and even in theaters where you pay large sums to see uninterrupted films. Everywhere the commercials are getting more strident in an attempt to be heard over the competition.

I may be an old curmudgeon, but I think many people keep the noise level up to avoid coming face to face with the strangers inside their own heads (and I'm not talking about schizophrenics here). I think silence is scary for many of us. But I also believe that people need quiet—visual quiet as well as the audio kind—in order to think clearly and remember things, in order to get to know themselves.

Am I wrong?


Dana King said...

I've noticed, and actively work against, all the assaults you noted. I want my time to be spent with the sights and sounds I choose, in a manner that allows me to appreciate them. Maybe I'm just old and crabby (at least old; I've always been crabby), but I work hard so I only have to do one thing at a time anymore, as life demands too much unwanted multi-tasking.

Alan Orloff said...

I love quiet. Sometimes I'll just sit in a chair and think. Then some family member will wander into the room, notice no electronic stimuli blaring away, and ask me if I'm feeling okay.

R.D. Ray said...

A recent study showed that those people who typically consider themselves to be multi-taskers are, on the whole worse at tasks than those of us who focus on one thing at a time. Any time we split our focus, we perform worse at tasks than we would if we would just do them one at a time. The irony is that those who habitually multi-task are worse at it than those of us who prefer doing stuff one thing at a time. So get those ear buds out and do your homework young man.