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  • Writer's pictureDebbie Thrower

Attention bestows value

Updated: Nov 11, 2022

© Alexlion from Pixabay

In another of his occasional essays, Terry Martin has been paying attention to how to remain attentive.


Attention is something we can both give and receive. To give someone or something our attention means to take care of their needs or to respond to a request or demand.

It requires mental effort to avoid the ever-present distractions which also clamour for our attention. By giving our undivided attention, or attending to a person or thing, we show that we value them. An important notion is that of attention span:

‘Attention span is the amount of time spent concentrating on a task before becoming distracted. Distractibility occurs when attention is uncontrollably diverted to another activity or sensation.’ [1]

Holly Ordway in her article ‘Cultivating Attention: The challenge of reading great literature’ gives some helpful advice on reducing distractibility by building up attention span through developing attention strength, through what she calls attentional scaffolding:

‘Attention is like a muscle that gains strength from use. A useful strategy to build up “attention strength” is this. As you begin your reading session, first remove exterior distractions: put away cell phones, close all those browser tabs, turn off push notifications for your media. Then provide a scaffolding device for sustaining interior attention to the text.’ [2]

Although she is writing specifically about reading great literature, her advice has wider application. As she notes, we are surrounded by a host of electronic gadgetry which provides a permanent source of distraction. Developing a more disciplined approach to their use in general would be a huge benefit.

Rob Walker, an American journalist, author and educator, quotes Susan Sontag who wrote:

‘It’s all about paying attention. It’s all about taking in as much of what’s out there as you can, and not letting the excuses and the dreariness of some of the obligations you’ll soon be incurring narrow your lives. Attention is vitality. It connects you with others. It makes you eager. Stay eager’. [3]

Paying attention and concentrating requires energy, but there is a payoff, as Gary Chapman notes:

‘Togetherness has to do with focused attention. It is giving someone your undivided attention. As humans, we have a fundamental desire to connect with others. We may be in the presence of people all day long, but we do not always feel connected.’ [4]

There are some people whom we describe as attention-seeking; a phenomenon well-known to teachers. Often the attention-seeking behaviour expresses, in an immature way, an underlying need for connection. If this need can be met in ways which do not reinforce or encourage unhelpful behaviour, then all concerned might benefit.


1. ‘Attention span’,

2. Dr Holly Ordway, ‘Cultivating Attention: The Challenge of Reading Great Literature’,

3. Rob Walker, The Art of Noticing: Rediscover what really matters to you (Ebury Press, 2019).

4. Gary Chapman, The Five Love Languages: How to express heartfelt commitment to your mate (Northfield Publishing, 1992).

Terry Martin is a trustee of the Southampton-based charity Caraway – ‘celebrating the richness and wisdom of old age.’




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