Text messages, emails, Twitter, phone calls, voicemails: More than ever before, we face a nonstop onslaught of distractions. New research in the fields of neuroscience and psychology, however, shows that attention and focus are key to high achievement in many professions from business and sports to the performing arts. The latest studies reveal that maintaining focus is what distinguishes experts from amateurs and stars from average performers. We talk to Daniel Goleman, a psychologist, about his new book on what the latest science tells us and how we can sharpen our focus and thrive.


  • Daniel Goleman Author and psychologist.

Read An Excerpt

Excerpted from “Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence” by Daniel Goleman. Copyright © 2013 by Daniel Goleman. With permission of the publisher, HarperCollins.


  • 11:06:54

    MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. New research shows that the ability to stay focused and pay attention enables us to succeed professionally and personally. In a new books, psychologist Daniel Goleman says staying focused may be what distinguishes experts from amateurs. His new book is titled "Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence." Daniel Goleman joins me in the studio. You are welcome to be part of the program. Give us a call, 800-433-8850, send us your email to drshow@wamu.org, follow us on Facebook, or send us a tweet. Hi Daniel, good to have you here.

  • 11:07:43

    MR. DANIEL GOLEMANWell, thank you very much. It's a pleasure to be back.

  • 11:07:45

    REHMI'm glad. You know, I do think it's getting harder and harder to focus with so many distractions daily.

  • 11:07:57

    GOLEMANWell, you know, it's never been worse in human history, I think, because now we all are carrying technological devices, our phones, our iPads, and whatever it may be, and they are diabolically designed to take advantage of the weaknesses of our attention system and nab us, and keep us nabbed. And so we're constantly fighting distractions. That's why, I think focus is more important than ever.

  • 11:08:24

    REHMHow do you define focus in your own mind?

  • 11:08:29

    GOLEMANWell, focus is actually, way I use it in the book, a term for the varieties of attention, and there are many varieties of attention. We think of being focused, that's concentrated, but that's just one kind. There's also a free association, very valuable for creativity. There's also self awareness, being able to monitor what's going on in our own mind, our thoughts, our feelings. There's empathy. That's another kind of focus that I think there's a little too little of these days, particularly around this city.

  • 11:09:01

    REHMI think that last point you made is very intriguing, that is the focus that is empathy. What's happened to it?

  • 11:09:16

    GOLEMANWell, empathy requires three things because there are three kinds of empathy, and actually each one of them draws on a different brain system. One kind of empathy is cognitive empathy, which means I understand how you think about things, how you perceive. You need that for a real dialogue, for true conversation. The other kind of empathy is emotional empathy, feeling with the person. And a third kind of empathy is empathic concern. When someone is in need, when someone is suffering, you feel for them. You want to help them. And I think that real health, particularly mental health is having all three. And I think in the political dialogue, some of those get omitted.

  • 11:10:02

    REHMAnd right now they are being in fact lost, unless something changes pretty quickly. You know, I was thinking about focus as I was looking at this computer screen in front of me. I'm looking at a time clock. Right below my line of vision, I'm looking at a keyboard. I'm looking at the mouse. I'm watching my engineer. I'm watching my producer. There is sort of divided focus here, but I think it's what keeps me focused.

  • 11:10:46

    GOLEMANBecause there's so much to keep track of.

  • 11:10:46

    REHMBecause there's so much to keep track of.

  • 11:10:48

    GOLEMANWell, you know, that's a really interesting point you make, because it turns out that to get into what's called a flow state, the flow state is when we're really clicking, when we're doing things at our best, whatever it is, you need to be challenged to the maximum of your skill set, and you've been doing this for a little while. You know how to manage all of those things.

  • 11:11:09

    REHMYeah. Right.

  • 11:11:10

    GOLEMANBut still you have to stay on your game.

  • 11:11:12

    REHMAnd we're in a brand new studio now. We have a beautiful window out onto the street here on Connecticut Avenue where passersby can also become a little part of the focus. But, you know, I worry most of all about the distraction from focus when people are driving a device in their hands.

  • 11:11:42

    GOLEMANWell, and, of course, many states now are outlawing texting because the studies find that it's the same as driving drunk, and it's because your attention is elsewhere, and it takes a good part of a second or seconds to bring it back to that car that just stopped in front of you, or the little kid that ran out in the street. So what we're realizing is that because our attention has become so divided, and so distracted by these devices, we have to fight back in a way, and it's not just texting while driving.

  • 11:12:11

    GOLEMANGo to a restaurant. You'll see couples, you know, out for a romantic dinner, and they're both staring at their phones.

  • 11:12:16

    REHMCan you believe that?

  • 11:12:17

    GOLEMANWhat's happening to us?

  • 11:12:18

    REHMWhat is happening to us? You talk about the older parts of our brain, essential for survival, how they interfere with our ability to focus.

  • 11:12:32

    GOLEMANWell, here's the problem. The way the brain was designed worked very well in ancient days when we lived in jungles, and we, you know, there was a Saber-tooth tiger and we had to have this radar for threats called the amygdala on watch all the time because you never know when that rustle in the leaves is going to mean you better run if you're going to survive. Today that same brain mechanism is looking for threat constantly, and it reacts to symbolic threats as though they were real biological ones.

  • 11:13:02

    REHMGive me an example.

  • 11:13:03

    GOLEMANFor example, someone doesn't answer your email. You're expecting something right away and you start obsessing about it, and in fact you start to review everything that's happened in the relationship for the last week and what you may have done wrong that made them mad at you. In other words, you make the assumption that there's an emotional emergency and what happens is the amygdala can hijack you attention so that you're thinking about that instead of, you know, the work you're supposed to be doing or the person you're with, whatever it is. But that's the way our brain is wired.

  • 11:13:32

    REHMWell, is it because we now have so many forms of communication at our disposal and interrupting our thoughts, our stream of thought?

  • 11:13:47

    GOLEMANWell, the stream of thought is more interrupted than ever. I mean, when I was writing the book "Focus," I found it quite ironic because I -- when I write I go up to a studio behind our house which used to have no phone and no Internet. Then I got Internet in so I could do research. I'm a big fan of what's called Google Scholar. You can see academic journals immediately. So I would need to look something in and my web browser presents me with all the news of the day, and I'm a news junkie.

  • 11:14:15

    REHMOh, I know.

  • 11:14:16

    GOLEMANSo I get immediately hooked, and then, you know, it's like, all of a sudden...

  • 11:14:19


  • 11:14:20

    GOLEMAN... I forgot why I went online. We're all in that boat now. We have a world that's been engineered to distract us.

  • 11:14:28

    REHMAnd you talk about the newer parts of our brain, and how are they playing out in this world of focus/non-focus?

  • 11:14:39

    GOLEMANWell, the top of the brain which is the newer part in evolution is where voluntary attention resides. So there are two major attentional systems. One is, okay, I'm going to decide to do this. I'm at work and I have this project to do and I'm going to make an effort and focus and get it done. And then there's this bottom of the brain, ancient brain system that says, oh, yeah, but what about that argument you had this morning, and all of a sudden you're thinking about, you know, how to make things okay.

  • 11:15:09

    REHMBut how do you know it's one part of the brain doing one thing and another part of the brain doing the other?

  • 11:15:17

    GOLEMANWell, I mean, if you're a neuroscientist doing brain imaging, you can see instantly what part of the brain is lighting up.

  • 11:15:21

    REHMYou really, really can see it?

  • 11:15:22

    GOLEMANOf course you can. Yes. So that -- and what's happened, one of the reasons I wrote "Focus," as a science journalist, I always track new developments in science. So when I wrote "Emotional Intelligence," it was because there was a new science of emotions in the brain. And I realize that now we have a new science of attention, and it's because they're able to use brain imaging while people are doing ordinary tasks, trying to focus, trying to concentrate, and we can see is it the ancient part of the brain? Is it the voluntary part of the brain? This opens up a new understanding.

  • 11:15:53

    REHMTell us about the research or top level executives and what that can teach us about focus.

  • 11:16:03

    GOLEMANWell, what we found with top level executives who are making decisions that affect organizations is first of all something really interesting I find. Implicit in a leader's role is the direction of attention. In other words, the leader sets the focus for everyone else. When you develop a strategy, what you're doing is saying, look at this, don't look at that. And each department does it in its own way. So what we're seeing is that attention is a collective operation when we're in an organization or actually in social media.

  • 11:16:44

    GOLEMANThe fact that we crowdsource now means we can draw on a much wider bandwidth of attention because we can ask other people what they're noticing, what they think, what they feel. And so that has expanded our ability. So for a leader it means you can now draw on wisdom from all parts of the organization as well as your own inner sense of where we should go.

  • 11:17:09

    REHMBut if that top leader is out of focus, him or herself...

  • 11:17:17


  • 11:17:18

    REHM...that can be detrimental to the organization.

  • 11:17:22

    GOLEMANYes. I call is rudderless, clueless, and blindsided, and it happens in leaders who lack one of three very important varieties of focus. The first is self awareness, being able to tune into your own gut sense of what we should do now. Gut sense is not trivial. It turns out that it draws on our life wisdom, on deep brain systems that remember everything we've done and whether it worked or not, and tell us how that applies to what we're trying to do now. If you lack that inner rudder, you can really bad decisions because this is data too, along with all the numbers and any other information.

  • 11:18:03

    GOLEMANThe second kind, the part that will make you clueless if you don't have it is empathy, being able to tune into how this affects other people, how it impacts them. I was very -- really moved by the show earlier today that you did where people were talking about how cutting off funds is affecting their lives. A pharmacist who can't accept prescriptions. I mean, where's the empathy there? And then the third kind is systems awareness. Understanding the larger world you operate in and what you should do now.

  • 11:18:35

    REHMDaniel Goleman. He is, of course, the best-selling author of the book "Emotional Intelligence." His new book is titled "Focus."

  • 11:20:01

    REHMAnd welcome back. If you just joined us, Daniel Goleman is with me. His brand new book, such an important one in this age of constant distraction, is titled, "Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence." Here's our first email from Jean who says: I'd read in the Washington Post that a public school Maryland is trying a course in mindfulness, including having students just sit and be quiet for a half hour.

  • 11:20:41

    REHMSome have comment on how valuable and important that is as a counter-force to the many distractions of the day and actually help students then focus so much better on their studies or activities.

  • 11:20:58

    GOLEMANI went to a school recently in Spanish Harlem, very poor part of Manhattan. The kids there live in a housing project next to the school, second graders. I saw them do what they call breathing buddies. They do it every day. Each child gets a little stuffed animal, a favorite of theirs, finds a place to lie down. Puts the animal on their tummy and watches their breath rise and fall. That's one, two, three on the rise, one, two, three on the fall.

  • 11:21:29

    GOLEMANThat is mental gymnastics. It's extremely important we do this for our children because what a child is doing is working the muscle of attention, learning to concentrate and to bring the mind back every time it wanders.

  • 11:21:44

    REHMHow about we do that for ourselves. It's not just...

  • 11:21:47

    GOLEMANAnd it's not bad for...

  • 11:21:48

    REHM...the children.

  • 11:21:49

    GOLEMANDiane, you're absolutely right. But for kids, I saw some amazing data. I wrote about it in the book. There was a study done in the city of New Zealand where they took every child born over the course of the year. They track them between ages of four to eight, tested them every way they could on the ability to sustain focus and ignore distraction, manage impulse. It turns out it's the same brain circuitry.

  • 11:22:12

    GOLEMANVery interesting. Managing distressing emotions and impulse is the same brain circuitry as paying attention. So you get a twofer here. And what they found when they tracked these kids down in their 30s is that their ability at what's technically known as cognitive control predicted their financial success. They did much better if they're good at it, their health and whether or not they'd been in jail.

  • 11:22:36

    GOLEMANAnd it was a stronger predictor, this is what amaze me, than their IQ or the wealth of their family of origin.

  • 11:22:42

    REHMKirk in Baltimore writes: Is it possible or likely that people with attention deficit disorder may be attracted to activities that may require a flow state? For example, auto racing or mountain climbing?

  • 11:23:03

    GOLEMANYou know, I've heard anecdotally that that's true. I've talked to friends who have been diagnosed with ADD and they say, when I can get into the zone, then I can concentrate beautifully. It's just when, you know, in the other times my mind is distracted. And there are two things coming with ADD I think is important to realize. One is that we've been treating kids with Ritalin and other pharmaceuticals.

  • 11:23:25

    REHMI know, I know.

  • 11:23:27

    GOLEMANThat's a shotgun approach that has side effects. We don't want to be doing that to our kids if we can avoid it. Right now, top universities are investigating ways to use this mental gym approach, which has no side effects but strengthens attention for kids with ADD. The other things is that attention deficit is a big disadvantage during the school years. But later in life, it turns out that entrepreneurs and that people who are very good at creativity and creative insights tend to be on the ADD end of the spectrum.

  • 11:24:00


  • 11:24:00

    GOLEMANBecause it's a different brain state you need, it's that free association mind adrift. Richard Branson who was diagnosed -- who says he would have been diagnosed with ADD is a poster boy. He says, you know, without that (word?) mind...

  • 11:24:13

    REHMThe head of Virgin Airlines.

  • 11:24:15

    GOLEMAN...Virgin Airlines -- I wouldn't have invented Virgin Airlines, Virgin Records and so on. So, you know, it's a double edge.

  • 11:24:21

    REHMHere's a tweet to that point, the tweet says: I'm constantly distracted but I have a high level of success. Can you comment?

  • 11:24:36

    GOLEMANI don't know what you do and what your success is, but if you're in business, if you're an entrepreneur, I can completely understand. You put things together more widely than other people do.

  • 11:24:46

    REHMAnd some researchers have said that high success in any field requires 10,000 hours of practice. You say that's a myth.

  • 11:25:01

    GOLEMANWell, it's a myth if you stop there. The researches by Professor Erickson down in Florida University and it's been widely quoted. It floats all over the blogosphere. The problem is this, it's not just 10,000 hours. If you have a terrible golf stroke and you practice it for 10,000 hours, you'll still have a terrible gold stroke. What you need and what's omitted is an expert eye. You need a coach who can see where you can improve.

  • 11:25:31

    GOLEMANAnd you need feedback from that coach continually, focusing on what to next to get better.

  • 11:25:36

    REHMAll right. We have many callers, so let's open the phones. Let's go first to John in Tulsa, okay. You're on the air.

  • 11:25:49

    JOHNHi. This is such a fascinating idea that I pulled off the road because not only I try to avoid information overload by not having a cell phone and so I'm not using it when I'm driving. But I'm about 60 and was diagnosed several years ago with ADD and I wondered, and you brought this up, when I was younger I was able to handle the same amount of stress and decision making very successfully and was very successful in my career.

  • 11:26:29

    JOHNHowever, as I've aged and as I've started taking medicines, a lot of Ritalin for it, I found that it seems like my ability to handle information overload has decreased. Is age a factor or, you know, is it just that the other activities I was more of an expert on, I'd put in the 10,000 hours or whatever?

  • 11:26:57

    GOLEMANRight. Well, you know, I have to admit that I think as I age that I need more help remembering things that I used to remember more quickly. I think that there is a cognitive decline with age. However, we're not passive in this. If you exercise more, for example, you keep your body healthy...

  • 11:27:16

    REHMPhysical exercise and mental exercise.

  • 11:27:20

    GOLEMANBoth of them.

  • 11:27:21


  • 11:27:22

    GOLEMANIt turns out help the brain. So I'd say that the habits that we got by on when we were younger, we need to think about. And as we age, it helps enormously to start exercising more, to keep your mind active, keep it alert.

  • 11:27:37

    REHMWhat is your day like?

  • 11:27:40

    GOLEMANIn a given day when I'm home, I like to write every day, that's what I do for a living. I get up, have breakfast with my wife. We talk over the day and then I go up to a little studio behind the house, very small room and meditate. And then I write. And I meditate.

  • 11:27:58

    REHMHow long do you meditate?

  • 11:27:59

    GOLEMANWell, it depends on how long I have. I'm kind of an aficionado. So sometimes I'll do 10 minutes if I'm in a rush, I might do 45 minutes or an hour if I have time. But what I find is it leaves me very calm, very focused and I can get into that flow state more readily while I'm writing. So I love it.

  • 11:28:19

    REHMWhat about physical exercise?

  • 11:28:23

    GOLEMANOkay. So let's finish the day. So that's the morning.

  • 11:28:25

    REHMOkay. Yeah, right.

  • 11:28:25

    GOLEMANThen I have lunch. And then I take phone calls, emails, I try to keep -- I try to keep a creative cocoon. And this is very important for people, you know, in a work day. If you're working on a project, you have small wins along the way. But in order to have them, the research shows, this is research at Harvard Business School, people need to have what's called a creative cocoon. It's a time in your day when you're protected.

  • 11:28:50

    GOLEMANYou don't have to answer every email. You don't have to respond to the outside world. You can stay in one place and get something done you feel good about. So that's my creative cocoon. And it's found that people who do well in the workplace on projects are people who know this or who's managers or bosses try to create that and give that space to them. So, okay, I've got my creative cocoon. I had lunch.

  • 11:29:14

    GOLEMANI have calls, whatever it is. And I like to exercise around 4:00 or 5:00 and then there's the evening.

  • 11:29:21

    REHMWhat kind of exercise?

  • 11:29:24

    GOLEMANWell, I have a treadmill. My wife and I like to go for walks if we're in a place where there's a nice one. I do phase training where I'd go up to a certain heart rate that physician told me I should target and then go down. I do it for 20, 30 minutes. I do yoga and I do weights.

  • 11:29:42

    REHMGood. Let's go now to Ben who's here in Washington, D.C. You're on the air.

  • 11:29:50

    BENHi, yes. Thank you so much for taking my call.

  • 11:29:52


  • 11:29:54

    BENReally good conversation because it's good to know especially now with so much stress that there is outlets for other people. I was wondering if you could speak a little bit about the role that cortisol plays in disease or dis-ease, if you will. I know that when you're mentioning back in the day when we were trying not to get caught in (word?) those types of reaction were needed.

  • 11:30:17

    BENBut now that we're in a workplace or in different environment, the physiology has not changed, yet the triggers for the stress have evolved to the stresses of the workplace. So if you could kind of speak to that, that'd be great.

  • 11:30:29

    GOLEMANBut let me -- it's a wonderful question because cortisol, the relationship between cortisol which is a stress hormone and there are others, adrenaline is another for example. The relationship between these hormone levels, which our body pumps out when it thinks there's an emergency and out performance is very important to understand. If we have too little cortisol, we're going to be bored.

  • 11:30:51

    GOLEMANWe're going to be daydreaming. We're not engaged. If you have something to do that you care about that you have a deadline, you got up in cortisol to an optimal point. That's actually where you get in flow, where your concentration is best. You're talking about what happens if the demands continue. When the demands get greater and greater and greater, too little time, no support and so on, what happens is the cortisol level shoot up and they incapacitate our cognitive abilities, particularly the ability to focus and remember.

  • 11:31:23

    GOLEMANAnd performance plummets. There's actually a paper, a scientific paper called the neurobiology of frazzle, the state is called frazzle when you're constantly stressed and your body is pumping out cortisol. Very bad for attention and focus, for memory, for cognitive abilities, also lowers the immune system's ability to fight off colds and flus. It actually, if it's severe and continued can erode the mass of the hippocampus, the part of the brain that remembers.

  • 11:31:54

    GOLEMANSo it's very important to have a way to recover from stress. It's called resilience. Resilience is the time it takes you to get back to a relaxed state from being really stressed out. And it's so important that each of us have a way to do that, whether it's, you know, watching your breath or yoga or running, whatever it is.

  • 11:32:15

    REHMMindfulness of some sort.

  • 11:32:18

    GOLEMANWell, mindfulness is a particular kind of mental training. And when you're watching your breath, it's mindfulness that lets you know that you're distracted and go back to the breath. And so mindfulness is a critical partner of concentration, absolutely.

  • 11:32:35

    REHMDaniel Goleman, his new book is titled, "Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence." And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Let's go to Neil in Salisbury, NC. You're on the air.

  • 11:32:56

    NEILYes, Daniel, I had a question concerning our government and Congress, how do you think the focus or the empathy or compassion, however you want to phrase it, of the Congress would be affected if they too had to report their daily attendance, have it published and maybe let the networks cover their activities for the public?

  • 11:33:21

    GOLEMANThat's a wonderful question.

  • 11:33:22

    REHMIt is indeed coming as it does at a time when this furlough is going on.

  • 11:33:30

    GOLEMANYes. And what you're saying is what would happen if we heighten the self-awareness of Congress about how they are perceived by other people because one of the problems we have is with gerrymandering and inside the Beltway living. People who represent us get a little bit insulated from how they're perceived I think by the broader public. And, you know, once a year they try to get reelected and contact the base.

  • 11:33:58

    GOLEMANBut I think that if what your suggesting would happen, it would alert Congress to not just empathy but to how people are seeing them and what they're making of it and what the consequences might be. So that's a wonderful idea.

  • 11:34:17

    REHMI think they're sort of blocking themselves from that kind of empathy right now in order to continue to do what they're doing politically. And there's sort of a conflict there.

  • 11:34:35

    GOLEMANWell, you know, it's really interesting. In the book I write about a mechanism in the brain that blocks empathy. And it happens mostly with physicians. And it happens during training when physicians have to learn to cut people open to, you know, give someone a hypodermic in the eyeball. Things, you know, things that are flinch-inducing. But you have to do it for the person's good.

  • 11:34:56

    GOLEMANSo we have a mechanism in the brain which will close down empathy so you can think clearly. But I'm not so sure now that that is translating very well into Congress.

  • 11:35:09

    REHMYou know, you write about video games and lots of parents and teachers and people in general are concern that kids spend too much time with video games. But you write about how video games can help children focus.

  • 11:35:31

    GOLEMANSome video games.

  • 11:35:32


  • 11:35:33

    GOLEMANAnd here's the thing that's important to understand. Today's video games are a real mix. And there's a lot of science about it.

  • 11:35:38

    REHMOh, yeah.

  • 11:35:39

    GOLEMANOne of the things that'll be fine for example is if you have an eight-year-old boy who loves battle games and what eight-year-old boy doesn't and who is engrossed in them for hours and hours. He's training his brain to be very good at vigilance, scanning for the enemy. And that would make you a good air traffic controller for example. However, he's also training his brain to assume that the kid who bumped you in the hall has a grudge against you instead of it was an accident.

  • 11:36:05

    GOLEMANIn other words, the outcomes are very mixed, because people who design video games haven't thought about it. Today, however, scientists are teaming with video game designers to develop games that have positive outcomes. There's one that's really an analog of the breathing buddies that those second graders were doing. It's called Tenacity. It's being developed at the University of Wisconsin.

  • 11:36:28

    GOLEMANAnd it has kids with an iPad, just tap the screen every time they breathe out and tap it twice on the fifth breath. And it's training in concentration. And if you get it right, then you get a visual reward, flowers blooming in the desert or something. Kids love it. But it's basically another way to exercise that part of the brain.

  • 11:36:50

    REHMNow, are you saying that that's available now or it's being worked on?

  • 11:36:55

    GOLEMANIt's in beta now and it will be released soon, I don't know exactly when.

  • 11:36:58

    REHMI hope so. That sounds absolutely wonderful. Daniel Goleman is with me. He is of course the best-selling author of "Emotional Intelligence." His new book is titled, "Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence." Short break here, we'll be back with more of your calls, comments. Stay with us.

  • 11:39:57

    REHMAnd welcome back to a conversation with brilliant writer, Daniel Goleman. He has written a new book for us all to think about. It's titled, "Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence." I want to go right back to the phones and to, let's see, I had a caller in mind. I think it's Hans in Plantation, Fla. You're on the air.

  • 11:40:31

    HANSOkay, thank you for being on the air. Before I have my question I really want to say how much I appreciate NPR radio.

  • 11:40:43

    REHMOh, thank you.

  • 11:40:43

    HANSIt's such an informative program you have -- I mean without NPR radio I don't think you can be really informed what is going on. And I almost consider myself having a degree, an NPR radio degree.

  • 11:40:58

    REHMThat's wonderful. Thank you so much.

  • 11:41:01

    HANSOkay, the question I have is concerning my daughter's studying habits and I occasionally have discussions with her and maybe arguments. Whenever she studies she watches the TV at the same time, some program or watches some movie on the laptop. And she claims she needs that. She, you know, she can study better by having that distraction or whatever.

  • 11:41:38

    REHMWhat do you think of that, Dan Goleman?

  • 11:41:40

    GOLEMANWell, I have to ask you a question, Hans, which is how is she doing in school?

  • 11:41:45

    HANSOkay, she is a B student. She finished the bachelor's degree and recently she started med school. And she moved out and now apparently she's not doing this habit anymore. I'm not sure...

  • 11:42:00

    GOLEMANI'm sure she's not doing it in medical school.

  • 11:42:02

    REHMI think not.

  • 11:42:03

    GOLEMANIt may be -- I used to listen to music while I was doing my homework and it was useful in a funny way because I could -- it gave me something to block -- to block out everything else and help me concentrate. I don't know that your daughter was using those distracters -- what sounds like distracters -- in that way.

  • 11:42:22


  • 11:42:22

    GOLEMANAnd generally speaking it's a terrible idea for a child to try to focus on homework and have anything else going on. Those things can be rewards for getting your homework done in the first place. Then you can watch the show.

  • 11:42:36

    REHMBut somehow this young person has gotten through.

  • 11:42:39

    GOLEMANBut she's -- exactly. And it sounds to me like she has really high ability and was able to focus enough to get into medical school. Once you're in medical school the demands are so high...

  • 11:42:50


  • 11:42:50

    GOLEMAN...There's no way you're going to watch a movie while you study anatomy.

  • 11:42:52

    REHMLet's go now to Nelson in Silver Spring, Md. You're on the air.

  • 11:42:58

    NELSONGood morning. There's a quote, by the way, I just wanted to say aside from T. S. Eliot's poem, "The Four Quartets," that pretty much sums up this discussion. The line is, "Distracted from distraction by distraction."

  • 11:43:14

    GOLEMANThank you, I'll use that.

  • 11:43:16

    NELSONAnd I did want to -- just this quick point. I used to tell my students in a couple of the colleges in which I taught that sometimes when they were having trouble getting -- reading something, reading a passage that seemed a little difficult to read aloud because that -- it's a whole brain activity. You can't think of anything else if you're reading aloud.

  • 11:43:35

    GOLEMANThat's -- that's true.

  • 11:43:35

    NELSONUnfortunately, the schools eliminated children reading aloud, but more to my real question which is in a society in which you have simply the rich and the poor you have less compassion. It's the middle class -- an empathy -- it's the middle class that generates compassion and empathy because these are the people who remember what it was like to live under more dire circumstances. Well, my -- really what I'm focusing on is as the gap between the rich and the poor increases in our society there's going to be less empathy. And the offshoots of it, of course, would be higher rates of crime or possibly a movement towards social revolution.

  • 11:44:17

    GOLEMANWell, without going toward the revolution let me tell you about some data that supports what you're saying. It's that -- and I write about it in the book. I wrote about it in the New York Times and -- on the weekend. And that is that if you put two people together, two strangers, and one is very socially powerful, very wealthy, for example, the more powerful person literally pays less attention to the other person.

  • 11:44:39

    GOLEMANAnd what that means -- and, on the other hand, the person of less power pays a great deal of attention upward. And it seems to be the case in society as a whole. If you're scraping by you need to be maximally connected to the people around you. Who's going to watch your kid after school until you get home from work? It's your neighbor. And it's a neighbor that you have a good connection with. Rich people will hire someone.

  • 11:45:05

    GOLEMANOn the other hand, I really am against stereotypes because many people of wealth, first of all, entrepreneurs may have started very poorly and then become wealthy. The other is that there are families, say, like the Rockefellers who have a strong ethic of philanthropy and tuning into people. That being said, I think you're right that as the wealth gap grows and grows people who have power and who have money are more likely not to understand the reality of life for poor people and so, sure, you know, who needs to pay for food stamps. We'll cut them off. It may seem like a painless thing to do, but you're causing enormous suffering by doing that. So I think this -- the empathy gap is something we really need to be aware of.

  • 11:45:49

    REHMAbsolutely. To Martin in Boston, Mass, you're on the air.

  • 11:45:56

    MARTINYes, I have a question regarding something that I still refer to as video poisoning. I find that people watch a lot of large screen video and a lot of cuts and pans and those sorts of movie activity. They tend to have poor response as far as being able to keep track of details, remembering things, remembering where their car is parked in a parking lot, walking into a room and not remembering why they walked into it.

  • 11:46:20

    MARTINAnd I, you know, I sort of feel that there may be something going on in the brain where those flashes make the brain think that it's going into a hunting mode and it will actually, you know, put the tool making mode on back burner where it keeps track of small items. And the hunting mode really is, you know, a more ancient part of the brain and that may actually stay active depending on how much video you're exposed to for several days and you're in this mode where you can't go anywhere without forgetting something.

  • 11:46:49

    GOLEMANThat's an interesting theory. I've never heard it, but I do know that the data on cognitive decline like tends to see it as either a symptom of an illness or a byproduct of aging when you're not taking care of yourself. The connection between video, though, and attention is very important because the quick cuts, the short takes, the graphic strong images are attention grabbers and they're being used more and more online, in advertising and so on because they trick the brain into paying attention by using those bottom up systems that, as you say, we needed early in evolution to survive, which is another reason to be more vigilant and more mindful of where our attention is going.

  • 11:47:36

    REHMBarbara in Chapel Hill, N.C. writes, "When my son was eight he announced he did not want so much of his time to be spent on organized activities because he wanted time to think. He's now a psychiatrist and his EQ, his emotional quotient goes a long way toward explaining his success in all aspects of life."

  • 11:48:09

    GOLEMANI'm not surprised. That was very precocious of him.

  • 11:48:13

    REHMThat's wonderful. That's just wonderful. And from Andy, "Does listening to 'The Diane Rehm Show' while doing desk work affect performance for better or worse?" He concludes, "I think better."

  • 11:48:30

    GOLEMANI think so, too. It's certainly better for life.

  • 11:48:32

    REHMI think that -- yeah, indeed. Let's go to Grant in Cambridge, Ohio. Hi, there.

  • 11:48:38

    GRANTHi, Diane.

  • 11:48:41


  • 11:48:41

    GRANTJust a follow up comment to Hans in Florida, I was a very bright student when I was younger, A's and B's. Eventually diagnosed with ADD and what I found was that, as it was something I enjoyed, I could, what I called hyper focused on it. You basically, like, in the zone, in the groove, however you want to put it.

  • 11:49:08


  • 11:49:08

    GRANTAs long as it was something I enjoyed, I could do that naturally. I ended up having to teach myself to just get in that zone, in that groove, no matter what I was doing. And one of the ways that I found that I could do that is by doing what Hans said his daughter would do which is have something else to block out other distractions.

  • 11:49:29


  • 11:49:31

    GRANTIn my case it's familiar music. It can't be something new because that distracts me.

  • 11:49:36

    GOLEMANUm-hum, um-hum.

  • 11:49:36

    GRANTFamiliar music will allow me to, you know, tune out anything else going on.

  • 11:49:42

    GOLEMANThat's very interesting because what you're doing is upping the informational input, the stimulus load on your brain. And that may get you at a level where you feel more challenged. And what you said was that if you liked something you can get hyper focused. I've heard this over and over again from people with ADD that when you're, kind of, dis -- not so interested that's when you have the trouble. And, of course, a lot of school is when we're not so interested. And that's when it shows up worse, but if you find things to do in life that really engage you...

  • 11:50:10


  • 11:50:10

    GOLEMAN...this is called good work. Good work is when it involves what you're really good at -- your excellence -- what engages you, what you're passionate about and what you value, your ethics. And if you can find good work you're going to get into that flow state. And as you're suggesting I think it's a natural antidote to ADD.

  • 11:50:29

    REHMThanks for calling, Grant. So the research that found that people who love what they do are less distracted.

  • 11:50:42

    GOLEMANWell, attention is a form of love. Think about it. Empathy, paying full attention, you're not going to have rapport with someone unless you first have full mutual attention. And if there's a topic, an activity, a cause, a mission you love you're going to be fully engaged. So the connection between love and attention is very, very important.

  • 11:51:05

    REHMAll right. And to Ellen in Greenwood, Ind., you're on the air.

  • 11:51:11


  • 11:51:13


  • 11:51:14

    ELLENI was a teacher for 35 years and the last 10 or 12 years I taught they would give me 20 to 22 boys and the rest girls because we worked so well together. My question is are boys affected by cultural or by physical in their ability to -- their attention span -- which I find is a little different from girls.

  • 11:51:48

    GOLEMANWell, you know, girls tend to developed cognitively a little earlier, particularly during the teen years, in many ways and one of them is in the ability to pay attention and also conscientiousness, responsibility, getting your work done. And I think that it's not that different -- they have different attentional systems and it's not that it's cultural or physical, although there may be a hormonal contribution, but I think from a teacher's point of view the challenge is always the same, which is how can you help this class. How can you help this student really focus in a sustained way so they can comprehend what it is you're trying to teach?

  • 11:52:27

    GOLEMANAnd learning is the accumulation of mental models that build on each other. As you learn math you're building on everything you knew before. And it takes -- you only learn when you pay attention. It turns out that toddlers, kids who are just learning words, they -- the brain only registers the word when the adult and the child are both paying attention to the same thing. it's mutual, joint attention.

  • 11:52:51

    REHMHmm, hmm.

  • 11:52:51

    GOLEMANI think that's the key to good teaching, too.

  • 11:52:53

    REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Now to Jessica in Silver Spring. Jessica, I gather you're a stay-at-home mom.

  • 11:53:06

    JESSICAI am. I'm with my three and one year old right now. So I may have to get off the phone, but my question pertains to how to maintain my own focus when I'm trying to meet the needs of young children all day long?

  • 11:53:21

    REHMWhat a great question.

  • 11:53:23

    GOLEMANIt's an important question.

  • 11:53:24


  • 11:53:24

    GOLEMANAnd it has to do with multi-tasking, which we all face in one way or another, but moms maybe more than anyone else. And I, you know, multitasking is a fiction. I hear your kids there.

  • 11:53:34

    REHMYeah, in the background.

  • 11:53:36

    GOLEMANWhat we really do is switch attention rapidly and so think about that. Think about paying just enough attention to what your child needs now, handling it and doing what you have to do, switching back. It turns out that mothers' brains are wired to do that better than anyone else's brains. So good luck.

  • 11:53:55

    REHMI think we do learn to do that as mothers. We have to, sort of, focus on one -- what one child needs then perhaps the mailman is at the door.

  • 11:54:08

    GOLEMANExactly, exactly.

  • 11:54:08

    REHMThen, you know, some -- some phone rings and you've got some other problem.

  • 11:54:13

    GOLEMANWhat we call life's full catastrophe.

  • 11:54:16

    REHMExactly, and let's go to John in Tulsa, Okla. You're on the air.

  • 11:54:21

    JOHNWell, what a thrill to talk with you, Diane.

  • 11:54:24

    REHMOh, thank you.

  • 11:54:27

    JOHNHey, so you can help me with this process. My mind is one that usually takes in lots of information, factors in many elements then spits out the one drop of (word?) idea at the bottom after it's processed it all and learning to trust that, over time, it's been one of my goals. I'm 50 now, but when I was younger I would get comments like earth to John, earth to John. My mind would be busy processing information.

  • 11:54:50

    JOHNI can find that I can do many things well, but that -- what's been the big nemesis is calming it down to focus on all the abilities on one area. So that's been the great challenge. And I think maybe the question is is there some validity in the growth into the process for that kind of thinker, the one that would be, you know, as a child, is learning to deal with their mind going in and exploring many aspects of this, the...

  • 11:55:19

    GOLEMANYou know, John, I think it's really important to understand that the mind processes an enormous amount of information for us and presents us with a, you know, what the bottom line is at the moment. And we can become absorbed in that process. I think that another key point is to balance that inward absorption with an other absorption, to the -- you know, who are the people saying earth to John, that tuning into the people around us while we're able to look deeply inside.

  • 11:55:44

    REHMThanks for calling. And one story I may have told you on another occasion, Daniel, our son who was, at the time, about 14, I think, had a math problem. He was concentrating, concentrating on and he could not solve the answer. So I said to him, I was in the kitchen, and I said, "David, go take a shower." And he said, "What?" And I said, "Go take a shower. Forget about the problem." He came out of the shower with the answer.

  • 11:56:22

    GOLEMANAnd that's because the formula for creative insight is first struggle with the problem, go in deeply and, like John was saying, gather all the information you can and then let it go.

  • 11:56:32

    REHMLet it go.

  • 11:56:32

    GOLEMANAnd the reason is this because the part of the brain, the bottom up part of the brain, that is going to come up with that answer is doing it unconsciously for you and you'll hear that answer in the shower.

  • 11:56:42

    REHMDaniel Goleman, his new book is titled, "Focus." Something we all need to learn to do better. He calls that the hidden driver of excellence. Thank you so much.

  • 11:56:59

    GOLEMANWhat a pleasure.

  • 11:57:00

    REHMI'm glad you were here. Thanks for listening all. I'm Diane Rehm.

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