Friday, July 03, 2009

Distraction and Attention

I am still catching up on my reading after being on vacation. Last night, I read an article in the May 25 issue of New York magazine by Sam Anderson entitled "In Defense of Distraction." Anderson launches the article with a discussion of multitasking and its effects on attention. As a teacher, I have questioned students' claims that they can multitask without any ill effects on their academic performance, and so I was interested to get Anderson's take on the larger issue.

Many commentators have pointed to an attention "crisis" which is "chewing its hyperactive way through the very foundations of Western civilization. Google is making us stupid, multitasking is draining our souls, and the 'dumbest generation' is leading us into a 'dark age' of bookless 'power browsing.'" Anderson calls this alarmism "silly," pointing out that critics have always complained about new technology and that we can't put the toothpaste into the tube--"our jobs depend on connectivity." For Anderson, the question is how we as a society can adapt to the flood of information and distractions to which we are exposed every day. Anderson consulted one of the world's experts on multitasking, David Meyer, of the University of Michigan's Brain, Cognition, and Action Laboratory. Meyer did not offer any words of encouragement; in fact, he is extremely pessimistic. "He sees our distraction as a full-blown epidemic--a cognitive plague that has the potential to wipe out an entire generation of focused and productive thought." His own life has been "negatively affected by the new world order of multitasking and distraction." Meyer and other researchers have proven that multitasking is a "myth. When you think you're doing two things at once, you're almost always just switching rapidly between them, leaking a little mental efficiency with every switch." The brain "processes different kinds of information on a variety of separate 'channels' ... each of which can process only one stream of information at a time." Meyer concedes that multitasking can work efficiently when "multiple simple tasks operate on entirely separate channels," which is a fairly rare occurrence. The more common scenario is constant distractions--some self-imposed--each of which costs us about twenty-five minutes of productivity.

Anderson also interviewed Winifred Gallagher, a behavioral science writer and cancer survivor, who wrote Rapt, a recent book about the "power of attention." Gallagher believes that attention is "'not just a latent abiity, it was something you could marshal and use as a tool.'" The best tool for marshalling attention is meditation, which can "make your attention less 'sticky,' able to notice images flashing by in such quick succession that regular brains would miss them." Because attention is a finite resource, "our moment-by-moment choice of attentional targets determines ... the shape of our lives." We have to make choices about how we spend our attention, which is not easy to do in a world full of distractions. Some have called for the use of "neuro-enhancers," while others have joined the "grassroots Internet movement known as 'lifehacking,'" which "seeks to help you allocate your attention efficiently." Some of the techniques seem pretty obvious to me, while others are rather ingenious; some are very low tech, and others are very cutting edge.

Anderson finally concludes that "focus is a paradox--it has distraction built into it. The two are symbiotic ... We need both. In their extreme forms, focus and attention may even circle back around and bleed into one other." The article ends on a hopeful note: "As we become more skilled at the 21st-century task Meyer calls 'flitting,' the wiring of the brain will inevitably change to deal more efficiently with more information. ... [T]he human brain might be changing faster today than it has since the prehistoric discovery of tools. Research suggests we're already picking up new skills: better peripheral vision, the abiity to sift information rapidly. ... Kids growing up now might have an associative genius we don't--a sense of the way ten projects all dovetail into something totally new." Anderson's article is a fascinating and entertaining read.


Marie S. Newman said...

There is an article that echoes many of the issues raised by my blog post. It is in today's Wall Street Journal and available at The author, L. Gordon Crovitz, cites Winifred Gallagher's book, but concludes that human beings will survive information overload and its attendant distractions the way we have survived new technology in the past. "Young people will cope first as we all evolve to become more sophisticated, less anxious users of information." Thanks to Vicky Gannon for bringing this piece to my attention.

Jacqueline Cantwell said...

I read "Rapt" and really enjoyed it. I know that we will survive distractions, but attention is important. I was going to put up a post on how writing changed a culture. Anne Carson in her book "Eros: the bittersweet" writes how the writing created a sense of division between the self and the society. So in other words, a new medium created a different type of attention and social interaction. Some people feel that modern media's emphasis on speech and image is changing that cultural sense. "Snow Crash" used that theme.