We are programmed to be interrupted.


Wired has a great interview with an author named Maggie Jackson who has written a book about the neurobiological basis of attention and how it is affected by all the “lovely distractions” modern society provides.   Distracted: The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age describes three types of attention – orientation, a general sense of awareness, and executive.  Her concern is that our modern technological culture is constantly distracting us – and that we like it.  Scientific American just ran an article about a study with similar findings:

Results suggested that thinking fast made participants feel more elated, creative and, to a lesser degree, energetic and powerful.

In the Wired interview, Maggie Jackson explains:

We are programmed to be interrupted. We get an adrenaline jolt when orienting to new stimuli: Our body actually rewards us for paying attention to the new. So in this very fast-paced world, it’s easy and tempting to always react to the new thing.

As great as all this stimulation make us feel, though, it complements a loss of the more deeply engaged sort of attention we need for the strategic planning and accomplishment of larger goals.  Unfortunately, she paints a dire picture – not only do we have a natural inclination to be distracted (on top of ample opportunities), but we are encouraged to by social pressures:

In our country, stillness and reflection are not especially valued in the workplace. The image of success is the frenetic multitasker who doesn’t have time and is constantly interrupted. By striving towards this model of inattention, we’re doing ourselves a tremendous injustice.

The negative side-effects of this increased level of distraction manifest at individual and societal levels:

This degree of interruption is correlated with stress and frustration and lowered creativity. That makes sense. When you’re scattered and diffuse, you’re less creative. When your times of reflection are always punctured, it’s hard to go deeply into problem-solving, into relating, into thinking.

Dark ages are times of forgetting, when the advancements of the past are underutilized. If we forget how to use our powers of deep focus, we’ll depend more on black-and-white thinking, on surface ideas, on surface relationships. That breeds a tremendous potential for tyranny and misunderstanding. The possibility of an attention-deficient future society is very sobering.

An ‘attention-deficient’ society obsessed with staying on top of things is a society that is stuck in the orientation phase of attention, makes snap judgments and is subject to the whims of cognitive shortcuts.

The distinction Jackson is illustrating through her research was summed up pretty well in one of Kevin Kelly’s blog posts on those who have ‘dropped out.’  He quotes Donald Knuth, who no longer uses email, saying, “Rather than trying to stay on top of things, I am trying to get to the bottom of things.”

Update: Interesting criticism/follow-up discussion on Mind Hacks.

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