Saturday, February 26, 2011

Content is King

Earlier this week, the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel ran a fascinating profile of Brewers pitcher Zack Greinke. Greinke, one of the best pitchers in baseball, has battled a social anxiety disorder (which almost caused him to retire from baseball at the age of 22). During the interview, the theme that he kept coming back to is that he needs to avoid talking or listening to other people for extended periods of time because it gives him mental fatigue. I've collected three separate quotes below:

"Some lady came up to me yesterday and just started talking nonsense. It takes eight minutes to get a real question out because it's buttering me up. Then they get to the question and it's a stupid question. So I've wasted 10 minutes and in that 10-minute time I didn't get to do what I needed to do. And even if it is a good question, I spend 10 minutes and they take the one quote that didn't mean anything" ...."It wears me out to do stuff like our meetings every day," he said. "If I actually listened to them, it would wear me out. So I go into a little daze. It's always been that way with me. Say teachers are talking to me in math class and they're going over these things. Really, you only need 10 seconds for the answer and they give you five minutes. You spend all this time focusing and most of it is nonsense... "To talk to people, I have to spend energy. If I spend my energy focused on talking to people to make friends, that takes away from the energy I could be focused on getting ready to pitch. So I just try to avoid nonsense talk.

It's not difficult to find laments about the declining attention span of Americans. Conventional wisdom is that with all of the entertainment options and distractions at our immediate disposal, we are more apt to flit from one thing to the next, never really going in-depth or engaging with any one thought or idea, never really living in the moment.

But Greinke offers an alternative way of viewing contemporary life. If we really did fully engage with all of the people and/or things that demand our attention, we would be mentally wearied and worn down. And Greinke realizes exactly why--most of our language is verbiage. One thing that a viewer immediately notices when watching "classic" re-broadcasts of televised sporting events from even as recently as 30 years ago is how little the announcers talked compared to now. Even radio broadcasts would sometimes have seemingly long stretches of dead air (occasionally you can still get this effect listening to Bob Uecker today). I'm always skeptical about claiming that a paradigm shift has occurred, but it does seem to me that we are more uncomfortable with silence than previous generations were. When I was a kid, I would find it strange that when riding with old people, they could go somewhere without turning the car radio on. Now everyone in a car may have their own listening apparatus (perhaps while holding multiple conversations at the same time). And it's not even enough to have an announcer talking nonstop during a televised sports event--now there has to be continuous on-screen graphics and sometimes a screencrawl as well. And if we could get by before without all this wall-to-wall content, it's worth asking if the contemporary emphasis on filling dead air is necessarily a good thing.

I'm no expert on how the mind works, but I wonder if most of us have an innate chemical ability to filter most of this stimulus and really cut to the core of what we need to know, whereas Greinke may lack the natural ability to filter, feeling the need to focus with utmost concentration on all that comes in (only to be continuously frustrated by how unnecessary his mental efforts were). And I'll admit his mention of math class hit a little close to home. I'm not a math teacher, but I teach English classes, largely in 75 minute blocks, twice per week. That usually still isn't as much time as I feel I need to cover the material that I want to (I've found that the only time I've ever taught classes without feeling rushed was when I had a two-hour class three days per week last summer). I feel like I am giving students their money's worth, that I've got clear objectives in my mind about what I want to accomplish in any given class period, and that students who stay focused will benefit from having come to class.

But at the same time I also wonder if there are better models for thinking (and learning) than having two big blocks of time. Even if we do practice "filtering," how good at it are we really? Could we be missing out on important stuff and locking onto the unnecessary? (This may be exactly what goes on in the mind of a person with ADD, but perhaps in all of us to some extent). How can we cut down on margin for error? Perhaps as our technological advancements facilitate distance learning, our classes will become shorter and more frequent. I wouldn't mind experimenting with teaching a class for 20 minutes at a time, twice a day, four days a week. It might be more challenging for teacher and student to make efficient use of the time and focus with utmost concentration, but it could be worth it to maximize our brain's functioning.

I suppose I could come up with some other ideas for how to cut down on superfluity in our society, but I'm afraid I've gone on long enough--any longer and I fear alienating Zack Greinke.


Blogger Rachel - P said...

out of all that; all I can say is I can't wait for Opening Day and for the Brewer season to be here!! =)

11:19 AM  
Blogger Kory said...

I've been curious of this kind of 'sensory spoiling' as well. Last week, I drove with my dad and a friend to UW Stout for a tour. Being a 9 hour drive round-trip, there was plenty of stimulus-lacking time. Sure, there was music, but I could tell that even with that noise they were uncomfortable in silence. No longer than 10 minutes in, they started talking about random things, and this continued for the ENTIRE trip. Also, when I say random, I mean everything from philosophy to food and paintball. I am definitely an extrovert and I love social interaction, but the talking seemed so pointless; I could have comfortably sat in silence for all 9 hours.

However, I'm still not sure our society's reluctance to silence is necessarily a negative quality. I believe that, since we are constantly exposed to more information than ever before, our minds are simply more active. Every day, we take in relatively massive amounts of information compared to 30 years ago, and, in contrast, we now find silence to be a waste. Our minimum threshold for communication has been raised significantly and we now require constant connection to the world.

You said it keeps us from ever "going in-depth or engaging with any one thought or idea", but I think we're simply exposed to more ideas from which we can select what we really want to engage with more.

11:25 AM  

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