Friday, August 31, 2018

We have always been easily distracted

A recurring story in the media is that our powers of attention and concentration have been seriously eroded by the rise of digital communication and in particular social media. Almost every day I see news items, blog posts, memes, rants and discussions on how we are slaves to our digital devices and can't focus on one task at a time. We fondly believe that in pre-digital days we were so much better at deep reading, reflection, writing and listening and seldom got distracted by trivia. If I try to think back to my younger days, especially as a student, I think I had trouble focusing even then. Even if the level of distractions was lower than today, I'm not sure I was so efficient. I remember that my mind wandered regularly to irrelevant thoughts, I stared out of windows, went to get more coffee - anything to avoid the task in hand. When I had an assignment to write and the deadline was approaching I deliberately went to the most boring and obscure corner of the university library to escape the distractions of other students, good views or proximity to a cafe. I got the work done but despite the spartan surroundings I still found it so hard to focus.

Maybe we've always been easily distracted. An article in The Outline, No, the internet has not destroyed our attention spans, refers to new research indicating that our short attention spans are the same as they've always been. Researchers at Princeton University have been comparing attention spans of humans and macaque monkeys and found that we have a lot in common. Both species have the ability to switch rapidly between a focused activity and checking the surrounding environment for potential danger and that this switch occurs four times a second. This ability has been vital to our survival as a species quite simply.

... well before the invention of mobile phones, humans were a cognitively distracted species that can only focus on one thing in quarter-of-a-second blocks. This inability to focus isn’t a flaw, but an evolutionary adaptation: Being able to flick between highly focused and diffuse attention gives us the ability to concentrate on a complex task while also being aware of our surroundings, making us the dynamic, hyper-alert creatures that we are today.

It seems we have an in-built need to continually monitor the world around us as a basic survival instinct and that makes us even more susceptible to the lures of social media. The research at Princeton is further described in an article in EurekAlert!The spotlight of attention is more like a strobe. We don't simply switch on and off four times a second but we are always ready to switch focus even if we don't notice the process.

Perception doesn't flicker on and off, the researchers emphasized, but four times per second it cycles between periods of maximum focus and periods of a broader situational awareness.

"Every 250 milliseconds, you have an opportunity to switch attention," said Ian Fiebelkorn, an associate research scholar in PNI and the first author on the macaque-focused paper. You won't necessarily shift your focus to a new subject, he said, but your brain has a chance to re-examine your priorities and decide if it wants to.

There is no doubt that the modern world has a vast range of distractions to tempt us with and we need to work hard to resist them and even try to minimise their intrusiveness. However it's somehow comforting to know that our potential for distraction is no greater today than it was 2,000 years ago.

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