Distracted at Mass? The science says you shouldn’t feel (too) bad

On a warm Sunday morning, a bird flew through the open doors of my parish church and spent much of the Mass flitting above the heads of the worshippers. We have a terrific priest and wonderful group of musicians who guide us through the liturgy, but they simply could not compete with that bird. For a good 10 or 15 minutes, hundreds of heads swiveled in unison as the bird made its way from window to hanging light and back again until the befuddled creature found its way out the doors it had entered.

I suspect I was not the only worshipper who found it hard to refocus on the Mass afterward. What made concentrating even more difficult for me was the young boy in the pew ahead of mine, playing video games on a phone. The phone screen drew the constant attention of those around him. The ripple effects of his technology extended even further, to two teens sitting nearby, who seemed to take the boy’s behavior as a license to electronic distraction. Not long after the boy’s video game began, they were surreptitiously taking Snapchat photos of themselves on their phones.

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Instead of paying attention to the Mass, I was thinking about birds and smartphones and eventually this very topic: distraction in church. I walked out of the building that morning wondering whether I should have bothered to come at all. Wouldn’t I have been better off praying at home, where I could concentrate in peace and quiet?

I am not the only one who has been fretting lately about our increasingly distracted world. I recently had dinner with a man in his 60s who complained that he no longer seemed able to pay attention to things like he used to. “I start reading a novel,” he said, “and I don’t get more than few pages before I put it down and go do something else.” He blamed the problem on the omnipresence of technology in his life, including and especially his phone.

Neuroscientists tell us that, contrary to what modern curmudgeons might like to believe, distraction is our natural state.

The inability of modern humans to fend off distraction and keep their attention focused has become one of the most hotly disputed subjects in psychology and education. Writers and educators lament that our modern devices have decreased our ability to train our attention on one thing at a time. They point to college students texting and watching videos in class, adults sneaking peeks at their phones during dinner dates and children (and adults) becoming unable to entertain themselves or fend off boredom without the help of electronic devices—even in church.

But another group of researchers is less alarmed. They argue that humans have always been a distracted species. Before we had phones and laptops and endless entertainment options on our screens, we still had birds flying around in church. Neuroscientists tell us that, contrary to what modern curmudgeons might like to believe, our brains are not built to sustain attention on any one thing for extended periods of time. Distraction is our natural state.

Human brains evolved to scan our environments for novelty. The next time you are in a restaurant or coffee shop or party, observe the people around you. You are likely to notice that they lift their eyes frequently from their immediate tasks—engaging in conversation, working on a laptop—and take in their surroundings. Unconsciously, they are doing exactly what our brains learned to do over the course of our long evolution: continuously surveying the environment for whatever might be new and evaluating whether it might be dangerous or helpful.

This feature of our brains was an extraordinarily helpful one when we lived in grasslands environments and had the dual responsibility of searching for food sources and avoiding predators who wanted to make us their next meal. The advent of modernity, with our predators tamed and our food in supermarkets, has made this aspect of our minds a frustrating one. We want to focus our attention on our work, our spouse, our children, our God—and we find ourselves unable to resist distraction.

Mass-goers can take solace from the hope that at least some of our distractions have their source in God and have something to teach us.

Undoubtedly our devices have made this problem worse. The designers of phones and apps and screens know that our brains seek novelty, and they have made that search easy for us. Our devices ping, they buzz, they flash; they offer us rewards and faux-friendships and images and cat videos. That is why we can “focus” on our phones for longer periods of time than our conversation partners or writing project; the phones give us the continual bursts of novelty our brains are seeking.

We have some tools that can help mitigate the effects of our distractive technologies. A few years ago, I began to practice mindfulness, a technique of focusing one’s attention on the present moment as fully as possible, often by following the movement of the breath in and out of the body. That focus on the constant presence of the breath—a seemingly simple task that can take months or even years of practice to master—helps to diminish our worries about the past and future and remain open to the gift of the present moment.

In my years of practicing mindfulness, I have felt positive effects on my ability to sustain my attention where I would like it held. But as my recent experience in church taught me, even the most ardent practitioners of mindfulness remain vulnerable to the distractions that beset us from all sides, from birds above and phones below. However much we train our minds in the challenging art of focus, we will always be somewhat constrained by the fundamental architecture of our brains. The mind pines for distraction—especially when we least want it to, including and perhaps especially in church.

Mass-goers can perhaps take solace from the hope that at least some of our distractions have their source in God and have something to teach us. Perhaps that bird, for some of my fellow pew-dwellers, served as a joyful reminder of God’s presence in nature. It might have spurred them to make a point of spending time outside later that day. Perhaps a mother near me saw that phone in the hands of the young boy and resolved to take a walk with her own child that afternoon and to leave the phone behind.

This past Sunday morning, a harried young mother with a toddler and a baby arrived in church just before the service began. Throughout Mass, she held the baby on her shoulder, and he beamed and gurgled in all his slobbering glory at the woman behind him. She spent most of the service smiling back at him and trying to repress her laughter. She was distracted all right, but she was also full of wonder and joy at the beauty of that baby. That seems to me like an experience God would love us to have in church, distracted or not.

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Frank T
2 months 2 weeks ago

Holy Esalen, Batman. Sounds as if Zen Buddhist teaching is the future of catholicism.

Frank Pray
2 months 1 week ago

Yes, we are dopamine junkies conditioned by our devices. Many of us cannot, as Pascal would urge, simply sit quietly alone in a room. But while this article addresses the Mass, it frustrates my expectation to discuss that the Mass itself can be an emotionally and mentally vacuous experience because of robotic repetition. Why did the Catholic liturgy become so fixed and inflexible? Certainly, worship should be based on the truth of scripture and the traditional teachings of the Church. But could there not be greater variation within that doctrinal and biblical framework? How true that the human brain craves novelty. Can you imagine meeting with a friend, and with minor variations, repeating exactly what you discussed, and only that, and in exactly that order, each time you met? Doe God really require that in worship? One interpretation of the tight central control over the liturgy is a subtextual belief in magical incantations that work because of precise repetition. Another hypothesis is that the Vatican uses the liturgy to maintain its universal control. This is somewhat like the Wizard pulling the levers behind the curtain. Our Lord admonished against the vain repetition of prayers, and called instead for genuine worship based on "Spirit and Truth." John 4:24; Matt. 6:7

Rhett Segall
2 months 1 week ago

Frank, I find in the Liturgy a healthy balance between constancy and creativity. Yes there are recurrent prayers, not unlike words of affection such as "I love you", "please", and "thank you". These expressions are irreplaceable. But of course they are intermingled with all sorts of different expressions. So too the Liturgy has its irreplaceables--the words of institution, the great Amen, etc. But the color of the vestments, the hymns, the scriptural readings, the homily, etc., are constantly varied. So far as distractions go, if they are not deliberate and if we see them in Mr. Lang's perspective , there's no need to give them too much weight, They're part of the stuff of life.

Frank Pray
2 months 1 week ago

Rhett, I read not just your words, but the spiritual depth of your personal experience of the Mass within the words. I respect that, and could even at times share it. God alone knows when we worship Him in "spirit and in truth." John 4:24. The Mass is not to be entertainment but a heartfelt connection with God through the presence of Jesus Christ among us in the Eucharist. So many wonderful evangelical worship experiences, good though they are, seem at times to devolve into theater. That said, my own formula (hubris unlimited) would be to search for a new "set-point" between the old solemnity and reverence of the pre-2nd Vatican Latin rite and at least several approved variations in the Novus Ordo. It would seem the deep reverence and solemnity would center around the Eucharist, while the more relaxed modernity of the many Protestant forms of worship could precede and follow that uniquely Catholic high point.

Lori Milas
2 months 1 week ago

Oh, gosh... guilty as charged! I am ALWAYS distracted at Mass. Having grown up in a Pentacostal church, where emotion and excitement were everything, it has been such a shift to see Mass as an inner work, without the high (necessarily).
I go to daily Mass, and I just bring myself to it, in whatever frame of mind. It helps me greatly to have read the experiences of St. Therese of Lisieux who fell asleep during Mass, was distracted... she knew it didn't distance her from God. I've shown up when my son was in ICU, on the day he overdosed, and during almost every other good and bad crisis of my life. I'm just 'there'. No judgment on how well or poorly I pay attention. This is life, this is real... Mass is where I start my day, as is, with no expectations on experience.

Roy Van Brunt
2 months 1 week ago

I find the most common distraction at Mass to be the presentation(s) by Music Directors and Cantors who seize the captive audience to present a concert or episode of "The Voice", replete with smiling and voices that use but don't need amplification. A close second is the applause that follows such vocal or piano presentations. How is it that the words in the USCCB's "Sing to the Lord", "the voice of the cantor should not be heard over the congregaty" are so universally ignored?

Mike Macrie
2 months 1 week ago

I find my mind wandering on personal problems and family problems during Mass. I constantly have to force myself back to listening to the liturgy. I often pray different prayers during the Mass not sure if this is good.

Mike Macrie
2 months 1 week ago

I find my mind wandering on personal problems and family problems during Mass. I constantly have to force myself back to listening to the liturgy. I often pray different prayers during the Mass not sure if this is good.

Ed Hassett
2 months 1 week ago

What I would like to see is more prayers for reflection in the Missal. As an 85 year old former alter boy 7 AM Mass before taking a bus 12 miles to school left me in a constant state of distraction. Now I go early enough to gain my composure nut would sure like to see more meditative prayers in the parish Missal

Donald Carter
2 months 1 week ago

Hi! I'm a student who is in love with Science, Technology and Engineering. I've been always trying to find such balance by myself and my recent project work has been devoted to such a topic. It hasn't been difficult to write it because I used the online writing helpers proposed by essayreviewexpert service. Now I'm sure that finding synergy between different aspects of life helps us to see the harmony of the world and to understand it much better.

Phillip Stone
2 months 1 week ago

Hello - I guess Professor in American really just means teacher.
Mindfulness is a Buddhist spiritual virtue practised while on the eightfold path to enlightenment.
It is not scientific.
It is not Christian.
That it has been imported into Psychology in the last 25 years does not make it scientific or learned or efficacious in the growth of true virtue.

We are beneficiaries of the life, death and resurrection of the promised Messiah to the chosen people and this was the missing element in the spiritual life and practices of ALL religions invented before the coming of the Saviour.

Are there not enough treasures in the two thousand year tradition of the spiritual lives of the disciples of Christ for you to consult and sample?
Do your employers know you are using non-Christian mind control tricks as lessons to young, immature baptised youth?

Dionys Murphy
2 months 1 week ago

Mindfulness is a practice, as well as a buddhist practice. It has been a practice in Christianity since its very beginning. I'm so sorry for your deep seated fear of the "other" that Christ sought to eliminate in humanity. It must be terrifying to always live in fear of something or someone who is different. And you must be deeply sad, subconsciously, to miss out on all of God's beauty in the world living in such fear.

Denise Delurgio
2 months 1 week ago

A nothing burger. I expected some spiritual advice.

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