This I Believe

Michael - Stevens Point, Wisconsin
Entered on September 13, 2007
Age Group: 50 - 65

I believe in the power of paying attention. It is our ability to absorb and process the information around us that has allows us to create and maintain our society.

I am one of the 4% of American adults with ADD. I finally figured this out about 10 years ago when I was in my forties. My pre-teen son was diagnosed with ADD at that time and I realized that I had all of the same characteristics that led to his diagnosis. My diagnosis explained a lot about some of my struggles as a child and adolescent. What I came to realize was that when I was growing up I had learned to pass myself off as a Normal, which is what I have come to call all non-ADD people. Much like the mutant X-Men I had to learn to keep my “power” a secret (and trust me, properly harnessed ADD is a power) as best I can. I had to learn to efficiently process all of the information coming my way, filter the unimportant, and focus only on the key information that was of use. Because I grew up in the 60s I had to do this through behavioral modification, not through the use of drugs like Ritalin.

So I think it’s more than a little interesting to me that I am able to pay attention better than most Normals and it’s given me definite opinions about the subject. If anyone can tell you about information overload, it’s me. I had to make major adjustments in learning how to pay attention. I learned to think faster and process information faster than most people because I had to in order to function effectively. My mind has become like the plankton capturing baleen of certain kinds of whales, continually straining and sifting the key bits from the ocean of information that I swim in. I had to learn to process information as a survival skill, because there is so much of it that clouds the information that I really need.

One really important thing that I have learned is that most of the information coming my way, however interesting and fascinating it may be is usually unimportant. Unless I put that unimportant information aside, it distracts me from the important information that I need to use to survive and to thrive. And what I have come to realize is that the Normal world is experiencing an ADD epidemic. Of course there is no one person or institution that has made this happen, but it’s the result of the convergence of many forces. The explosion in the content available on the internet and cable, and the effect that it has had on the mainstream media has created a society that is really having a hard time paying attention. I know that Americans have always had a relatively short attention span, but it’s really shrinking, and its effect on our society is profound. One example of this is that I recently read was that a major scandal involving a government official will have little effect on elections unless it happens within 90 days of the election. 90 days! At the founding of our nation it used to take longer than that to distribute the results of a national election for Pete’s sake!

I’m not going to launch into a diatribe about the decline of the traditional media, but I want to point out that we live in a media culture where it’s nearly impossible for the average Normal to pay attention. He can’t just watch the news anymore – instead of listening to a thoughtfully distilled presentation of world events on one of three network news shows, he’s subjected to 24 hour news on cable that has two or three windows of information open at one time and a crawl running across the bottom of the screen going on about our latest tabloid fascination. How an average flow of information can overwhelm the ADD person, the flood of information overwhelms the Normal.

Trust me, I can tell you when there’s too much information available and we’ve got that situation now. I don’t believe that because of the avalanche of information coming our way that we are somehow better informed; that we as citizens are able to process all of what we see and hear and put it in the proper context. Information is of no use, is actually a hindrance, unless it is processed and put in context that allows us to actually do something with it. And in not being able to do that it keeps your average Normal from taking care of the important things that affects him now and in the future. Ask any Normal to pick a news item from 6 months ago. How did they story end up? What’s happened since then? Most Normals can’t tell you because that has been washed away by the fast flowing river of information. It swirled into view long enough to catch his attention and then it disappeared.

I’m not saying that we’re better off having someone censor our news for us. I am saying that as human beings we truly need a system, internal or external, that acts as a filter to keep us from being overwhelmed with information. Like the obesity epidemic in the general population that is fueled by the super-sized, all you can eat food culture the national attention deficit epidemic in the Normal population is fueled by the all you can eat information media smorgasbord. Maybe we can find a way to use our hidden ADD X-Men in some way to help people learn to deal with their information addictions. We’re here to help.

I believe that the future of our society depends on that critical ability to simply pay attention.