The everyday dynamics of attention and distraction are frequently cast in medical terms in contemporary discourse. But do warnings about a 21st century crisis of attention obscure the longer history of ideas about attention and distraction? This one-day symposium will frame the attention debate as a potent site of exchange between medicine and the humanities.

Keynes Library (Room 114), Birkbeck School of Arts, 43 Gordon Square, London,
9.15-17.30 followed by a wine reception
The event is free, but registration is essential. Please email Sophie Jones to book a place.


9.15-9.45: Arrival and registration (Keynes Library)

9.45-10.00: Welcome and outline of the day

10.00-11.30: Panel 1

Medieval Attention

Katherine Zieman (Jesus College, Oxford) – Premodern Attention: An Anti-Genealogy

Hilary Powell (Durham) – Attending to Angels and Dismissing Demons: An Early Medieval Perspective on Attention and Distraction

Frances Williams (Bangor) – The Donkey and the King: how Hieronymus Bosch gives lessons in immersive distraction

11.30-12.00: Tea and Coffee (Room 112)

12.00-13.30: Panel 2

Attention, Distraction, and Literature

Danny Hayward (Birkbeck) – Herder’s Scene of Availability

Alice Bennett (Liverpool Hope) – Some Distracted Reading

Sophie Jones (Birkbeck) – Minimalism’s Attention Deficit

13.30-14.30 – Lunch (Room 112)

14.30-15.30: Panel 3

ADHD and Childhood

Matthew Smith (Strathclyde) – “Snips and Snails and Puppy Dog Tails”: Boys and Behaviour in the USA

Angela Filipe (London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine) – On the pursuit of attentiveness: meanings, practices and values in an ADHD clinic

15.30-16.00 – Tea and Coffee (Room 112)

16.00-17.30 – Panel 4

Technology, Health, and Productivity

Brian Bloomfield and Karen Dale (Lancaster) – Working to distraction: Attention and the productive body in the era of cognitive enhancement

Matt Hayler (Birmingham) – Attention and Expertise: The Value of Focus in the 21st Century

Rob Gallagher (King’s College London) – Look, Listen, Tingle: ‘ASMR’ Videos as Networked Therapy

17.30 – Wine Reception (Keynes Library)

This event is funded by a Wellcome Trust/Birkbeck ISSF grant

The event is free, but registration is essential. Please email Sophie Jones to book a place.



Dr Katherine Zieman (Jesus College, Oxford)
Premodern Attention: An Anti-Genealogy

Attention is often considered not merely a ‘modern’ problem, but a problem that is constitutive of modernity. Thinkers from Walter Benjamin to Jonathan Crary have defined modernity as a distracted age, one characterized by the obsolescence of contemplation or by the self-conscious dialectic of attention and distraction as primary elements of subject formation. More recently David Marno has claimed the early modern period as the point at which ‘attention’ emerged as a topic of speculation in Western culture. This paper will focus on premodern discussions of attention in order to suggest that such competing genealogies do indeed ‘obscure [a] longer history of ideas about attention and distraction’. Premodern discussions differ from those of modernity less in their consciousness of mental processes than in the sources of distraction: whereas modern critics describe problems in terms of overstimulation from external sources, such as social media, premodern thinkers tend to locate danger in precisely the opposite situation—it is when one is in solitude, in the absence of external stimuli, that uncontrolled and distracting thoughts can accost the unwary, from the courtly lover assaulted by what Andreas Capellanus called ‘unmeasured thoughts’ in the absence of his beloved to the solitary hermit, whose ‘wandering mind’ made him vulnerable to temptation. I will focus on the particular problem of attention during prayer as a way of demonstrating that the idea of ‘attention’ has long been invoked to describe the interface between stimulus and perception as well as that between perception and cognition in particular sociocultural settings (though I may suggest some aspects of these settings, such as media technologies, that especially inflect such discussions).


Dr Hilary Powell (Durham)
Attending to Angels and Dismissing Demons: An Early Medieval Perspective on Attention and Distraction

You can’t turn on the radio or open a newspaper without finding a new programme or article on the subject of mind wandering. The media has framed it as a 21st century problem, an evil of the digital age when people are perpetually bombarded with alerts from social media sites, targeted adverts and late-night work emails. These are distractions which draw attention from the task in hand, leaving the mind to roam unfettered through randomly occurring thoughts. Today, sudden and frequent attentional change has become a source of social anxiety but this concern is not a recent development. People worried about it, tried to account for it and sought to prevent it as much in the past as they do today. Being easily distracted is a nuisance but in the Christian monastic tradition it was far more perilous; it was indexed to sin and the fate of one’s immortal soul. This paper will explore how losing attention and allowing one’s mind to wander was of paramount concern to early Christian writers such as Augustine of Hippo and John Cassian since it left one vulnerable to demonic attack. It will also explore the therapeutic strategies these authors advised for returning a distracted mind to task and how being in a highly attentive state of hypervigilance could induce extraordinary spiritual experiences.


Ms Frances Williams (Bangor)
The Donkey and the King: How Hieronymus Bosch gives lessons in immersive distraction

In my paper I will explore the precise relationship of ‘attention’ and ‘distraction’ to one another, to see whether they couldn’t work together in the creation of ‘awareness’. The vehicle for this exploration will be a first-person account of a direct encounter I had recently with an original work of art by Hieronymus Bosch. I was given a small hand torch to look at the composition in detail, something which accentuated this ‘flitting’ and ‘flexing’ between detail and whole.

This descriptive account of my own perceptual ‘tour’ of the painting will be interspersed with relevant references to other critics who have also explored forms of attention through art, especially those interested in meditative Buddhist philosophies. These include Christophe Andre (who looks at Bosch directly in his book, Mindfulness) as well as queer theorist Eve Sedgwick, whose own account of Buddhist Pedagogy points to Zen ideas of ‘suchness’ in relation to particular forms of knowledge. Rudolph Steiner also connects by way of his reference to the “performative presence of non-being”.

In conclusion then, contrary to what might one expect, distraction can serve as a catalyst by which attention is secured, leading to the viewer being immersed in a series of very different, yet related, pictorial events. Such representations have great capacity, as a result, to enable awareness, not just of oneself, but the precarity of the ‘self-evidence of phenomena’ that the world presents to us.


Dr Danny Hayward (Birkbeck)
Herder’s Scene of Availability 

Attention was absolutely essential to the new, sensualist ‘natural histories of man’ of the mid-eighteenth century, in large part because its alleged deficiencies provided one way of defining in theory an economy of human needfulness. This paper will argue for the importance of Johann Gottfried Herder’s contribution to this tradition, principally in his 1772 work Treatise on the Origin of Language. Specifically I will argue that Herder tended to discuss the power of attention in terms of a ‘scene of availability’, in which the mind is perpetually confronted with a choice between a field of intense and supersaturated particulars. For Herder, language emerges out of an attentional process that is always situated in a scene of variably intense and competing sensations. The central thesis of the paper is that this conception was of essential importance to Herder’s theory of art and poetic language and that it provided a distinctly new way of thinking about the challenges with which a popular and republican poetry might be confronted. I will conclude by providing some arguments about why Herder’s thinking was rejected by writers on aesthetics in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, and by offering a brief defence of its contemporary significance.


Dr Alice Bennett (Liverpool Hope)
Some Distracted Reading

This paper begins with questions about the implicit opposition between reading and distraction. In recent essays on reading and contemporary attention, such as Alan Jacobs’ The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction (2011) and David L. Ulin’s The Lost Art of Reading: Why Books Matter in a Distracted Time (2010), reading operates as both a symptom of and the remedy for a distraction so powerful that it names and defines the present day: in these examples, reading is the nostalgic other to the lamentably distracted present. But any history of fiction – and particularly of the novel – makes it clear that the kinds of reading these modes invoke are full of distraction, inattention and interruption; chapter breaks, bookmarks, page numbers – the textual architecture of books themselves is designed for a play of attention and distraction.

Contemporary writers such as David Foster Wallace, Ali Smith, Joshua Cohen, Tom McCarthy and Ben Lerner have made attention central to their work. As Ben Lerner has put it, drawing “attention to attention” – creating works that ask us to examine not just the artwork and its processes, but the eddies and backwash of our own engagement with it – has become central to contemporary writing. Rather than imagining the experience of reading as one which involves complete attention and absorption, this paper argues that contemporary fiction imagines rhythms of boredom, inattention, absent-mindedness, mindlessness, multi-tasking, digression, and distractions, even within the processes of reading.


Dr Sophie Jones (Birkbeck)
Minimalism’s Attention Deficit

In his 1981 essay ‘A Storyteller’s Shoptalk’, Raymond Carver traced a direct line between the length of a writer’s attention span and the length of a literary work:

When I was 27, back in 1966, I found I was having trouble concentrating my attention on long narrative fiction. For a time I experienced difficulty in trying to read it as well as in attempting to write it. My attention span had gone out on me; I no longer had the patience to try to write novels. (Carver, 1981)

Carver was not alone in positing a connection between attention and literary form in the 1980s. According to David Leavitt, a growing number of authors were finding the short story the form ‘most appropriate to the age of shortened attention spans’ (Leavitt, 1985). In the eye of such assertions, a group of stylistically diverse authors—including Carver, Amy Hempel, Ann Beattie and Mary Robison—were grouped together under a single umbrella: literary minimalism.

Minimalism produced (and was produced by) a critical anxiety that reached its apex in Madison Smartt Bell’s notorious 1986 Harper’s attack, provocatively titled ‘Less is Less’. Minimalist writers, so the argument went, were deficient—just like the public’s capacity for sustained attention. My paper will suggest that the constitution of ‘minimalist literature’ was influenced by contemporary anxieties about attention, which were linked to the emergence of attention deficit disorder (ADD) and, subsequently, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) as diagnosable conditions. Finally, I will indicate the way one ‘minimalist’ author—Mary Robison—stages a more complex encounter with ADD and notions of distraction.


Carver, Raymond, ‘A Storyteller’s Shoptalk’, New York Times, 15 February 1981.
Leavitt, David, ‘New Voices and Old Values’, New York Times, 12 May 1985.


Dr Matthew Smith (Strathclyde)
“Snips and Snails and Puppy Dog Tails”: Boys and Behaviour in the USA

What are little boys made of?

Snips and snails and puppy-dog tails;

That’s what little boys are made of.

In 1876, Mark Twain introduced Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn to American Literature. Superficially, Tom and Huck appear to be quite different characters. While Tom lives comfortably with his stern, but loving, Aunt Polly, Huck is the son of the town drunk, who often sleeps rough, and is depicted wearing rags. Tom’s success ‘licking’ a boy in a fight and convincing his compatriots to pay him for the privilege of whitewashing a fence mark him out as a confident young leader. Huck, in contrast, is ‘the juvenile pariah of the village’. But despite their dissimilar economic and social circumstances, they are inextricably linked by a series of characteristics, namely, mischievousness, impetuousness, creativity and a degree of defiance. They are both good boys morally, but not necessarily when it comes to following rules.

What would we make of Tom and Huck today? A recent article in Slate convincingly suggested that Twain’s heroes would both be diagnosed with mental disorders, especially ADHD. Prior to the 1950s, however, boys who attracted psychiatric attention were not Toms or Hucks, but the opposite: nervous, withdrawn boys. In this paper I discuss how these formerly heroic boyhood characteristics became psychiatric symptoms, examining the social, cultural and psychiatric changes that contributed to how notions of boys and boyhood radically changed. As expectations of boys changed, those who were unable to adapt to an environment that increasingly privileged intellectual over physical success were less seen as being charmingly boyish and evermore seen as disordered.


Dr Angela Filipe (London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine)
On the pursuit of attentiveness: meanings, practices and values in an ADHD clinic

In this paper, I explore the ambiguity of attention in the diagnosis of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Drawing on an ethnographic case study of an ADHD clinic in Portugal, I show how a group of developmental clinicians makes sense of and ascribes value to attention as a neurobiological function and marker for the diagnosis and as a relational value that is mediated between and negotiated with children and their families. In this, I claim that different conceptions and forms of ‘paying attention’ in the assessment of and intervention in ADHD call into question the meaning of the diagnosis and yet put in common the pursuit of attentiveness as a value in itself.


Professor Brian Bloomfield and Dr Karen Dale (Lancaster)
Working to distraction: Attention and the productive body in the era of cognitive enhancement

This paper examines the problematic of attention manifest in the contemporary world of work and in particular the tension between countervailing forces that simultaneously demand and distract attention. On the one hand, employment may require new modalities of attention in relation to task diversity and multitasking (Wajcman and Rose, 2011; Wajcman, 2015), or the simultaneous monitoring of multiple sensory/communicative inputs. On the other, attention is undermined through interruption, work fragmentation, the lure of the electronic world of hypertext (Carr, 2010) and social media (Turkle, 2012), not to mention the production/service demands of modern society. For example, 24/7 consumer societies require increasing numbers of employees to work extended hours or shift patterns that impact the body’s sleep-wake cycle (Crary, 2013) and thereby challenge the capacity for attention whilst at work. Against this backdrop we examine the growing interest in the potential uses of pharmacological agents for purposes of cognitive enhancement in the form of increased focus, extended wakefulness, and the ability to work harder or with greater concentration for extended periods of time. With an eye on the historical dimension of the interplay between work, attention and industrialization, we consider the various assumptions that have underpinned changing notions of the ‘productive body’ (Guéry & Deleule, 2014) set against the shifting demands and patterns of work. Noting the long-standing interest in chemically assisted wakefulness/concentration by the military, as well as the prescribed and off-label uses of ADHD drugs such as methylphenidate and amphetamines by various groups in society in pursuit of enhanced or extended cognition, we consider the ‘cultural imaginaries’ (Åsberg & Lum 2009) that mediate and reinforce the current pursuit of pharmacological solutions (e.g. modafinil) for the ways in which human embodiment is constructed as limited in relation to the requirements of productive work. In this we explore the contemporary interest in attentiveness at work through Hogle’s (2005) insight that the characteristics defined as desirous of enhancement are neither ‘natural’ nor neutral.


Åsberg, C. and Lum, J. (2009) PharmAD-ventures: A Feminist Analysis of the Pharmacological Imaginary of Alzheimer’s Disease. Body & Society, 15(4), 95-117.

Carr, N. (2010) The Shallows: How the Internet is Changing the Way We Think, Read and Remember (London: Atlantic Books).

Crary, J. (2013) 24/7: Late capitalism and the ends of sleep. (London: Verso Books).

Guéry, F., & Deleule, D. (2014). The Productive Body, trans. Philip Barnard and Stephen Shapiro. Winchester and Washington: Zero Books.

Hogle, L. F. (2005) Enhancement technologies and the body. Annual Review of Anthropolology, 34, 695-716.

Turkle, S. (2011) Alone Together (New York: Basic Books).

Wajcman, J. and Rose, E. (2011) ‘Constant connectivity: Rethinking interruptions at work’, Organization Studies, 32(7): 941-961.

Wajcman, J. (2015) Pressed for Time: The Acceleration of Life in Digital Capitalism (London: University of Chicago Press).


Dr Matt Hayler (Birmingham)
Attention and Expertise: The Value of Focus in the 21st Century

This paper will consider the changing value placed on attention in the 21st century, an age of ubiquitous, mobile, and internet-connected computing; nootropics (‘smart drugs’); and technologies and science fiction stories which jointly promise the end of effort. Drawing a rough distinction between fantasy’s fetishisation of learned talent and innate skill and science fiction’s craving for “friction free” instant expertise, I will argue that we need to separate our essential ethics from out-of-date myths in order to maximise the benefits of our new tools and hopeful narratives and minimise the decline of essential skills and true expertise. What happens when attention doesn’t require effort, or when we don’t even need focus, in order to achieve mastery?

The paper will draw on work on e-reading and the nature of technology and expertise from my Challenging the Phenomena of Technology (2015). Digital distractions have become part of the narrative of the popular resistance to new forms of textual production and the discourse gives us a model of current opinion that we might challenge or at least address. I will also explore the postphenomenological work of Don Ihde and findings in contemporary “4E” cognitive science (cognition as embedded, extended, enacted, and embodied) in order to ground the discussion of how we use tools (including books) expertly, with focus. I understand technology not as something “unnatural” or separate from real human experience, but instead as the condition of all human action in the world. Undoubtedly, by mingling with machines we become something different, but that’s probably ok, it’s always been the case.


Dr Rob Gallagher (King’s College London)
Look, Listen, Tingle: ‘ASMR’ Videos as Networked Therapy

‘Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response’ (ASMR) is a term that has emerged from e-health forums to describe what medic Nitin Ahuja (2013) calls ‘a reliable low-grade euphoria in response to specific interpersonal triggers, accompanied by a distinct sensation of “tingling” in the head and spine.’ Over the last half-decade a growing ASMR community has used social media to discuss their experiences, develop a shared language, lobby for medical research and create and exchange ‘trigger videos’ designed to induce the sensation.

In a mediasphere characterized by fragmentary ‘hyperattention’ (Hayles 2012), these videos are remarkable for both commanding and representing states of deep and sustained concentration. Some videos see ‘ASMRtists’ meticulously performing banal tasks (folding towels, peeling oranges, building environments in Minecraft); some centre on whispered show-and-tell displays, demonstrations or readings; in others ASMRtists roleplay as masseurs, doctors and other figures associated with healing, tranquility, indulgence or affirmation.

Quiet, slow and monotonous, these performances (which often last for the better part of an hour) nonetheless hold large audiences rapt, and are held by some to alleviate insomnia, anxiety and migraine. Indeed, for Ahuja ASMR culture has much to teach doctors about the healing capacity of ‘concentrated acts of altruistc attention.’ For cultural theorists meanwhile, it points to the growing role of media as time-killers, sleep aids and mood modulators in a world where – as Crary (2014) Berlant (2011) and Berardi (2009) argue – technology and capital are conspiring to disrupt life’s familiar rhythms and cadences.


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