After my last post, I searched on distraction, and came across the article In Defense of Distraction. The author, Sam Anderson, discusses whether we’re faced with some modern plague that’s eroding our attention and ruining our lives.
Initially, the answer seems to be “Yes”, even according to experts. But he spends the rest of the article exploring idea, and eventually disagrees with this answer.
Competition For Attention
More people are alive today than have ever before been alive at once. And many people have professions that require, generate, or depend upon knowledge. As we create new knowledge, the abundance of information, along with the ease of sharing and access, creates a dilemma.
“What information consumes is rather obvious: It consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention, and a need to allocate that attention efficiently among the overabundance of information sources that might consume it.”
More information competes for the finite resource of attention. The more information we digest, the less attention left for other tasks. You can try to divide your attention further, by multi-tasking, but we’re not designed to multi-task. Our brain’s architecture has bottlenecks which prevent parallel processing.
One of the people he interviews says:
“… even ten years ago. It was a lot calmer. There was a lot of opportunity for getting steady work done.”
But this viewpoint is based on a social and cultural environment from the past. And as our society and culture changes, so does the way our brain operates. Thanks to neuroplasticity. The author argues that we are currently, or are at least capable of, adapting to our new environment.
If people find the lack of attention so dangerous, why don’t they just opt out? Disconnect from the Internet, turn the phone to airplane mode, and do what they might otherwise be too distracted to do? Saying there’s no longer an opportunity to do steady work implies the distractions are impossible to avoid. But the more likely answer is that we find the distraction impossible to resist.
Addicted to Distraction?
In my previous post, I mentioned the variable reward nature of reading articles online. I’ve heard this idea before, particularly related to checking email. This is also mentioned by Sam:
As B. F. Skinner’s army of lever-pressing rats and pigeons taught us, the most irresistible reward schedule is not, counterintuitively, the one in which we’re rewarded constantly but something called “variable ratio schedule,” in which the rewards arrive at random. And that randomness is practically the Internet’s defining feature: It dispenses its never-ending little shots of positivity—a life-changing e-mail here, a funny YouTube video there—in gloriously unpredictable cycles.
Checking for new, interesting articles can be addictive. There’s the unpredictable chance I’ll find one that’s life-changing. And if I don’t check often, I potentially miss out on that reward. Spread this across multiple online services, and one can spend the entire day toggling between browser tabs in a quest for more dopamine releases.
So, people don’t, won’t, or can’t opt out from the distractions, because they’re addictive and our brains crave them. I can see this as an explanation for why attention is decreasing these days, but it seems a poor excuse for why it continues to be an issue.
While addictions are real and exist, we aren’t powerless about them. We can overcome additions, especially when we understand them and have a real motivation to eliminate them.
An analogy used in the article is “jackhammers”, or the things that take away your attention.
For Gallagher, everything comes down to that one big choice: investing your attention wisely or not. “The jackhammers are everywhere—iPhones, e-mail, cancer—and Western culture’s attentional crisis is mainly a widespread failure to ignore them.”
Instead of flexing our ability of executive control, or attentional self-control, we let the shiny objects distract us.
“You can’t be happy all the time,” Gallagher tells me, “but you can pretty much focus all the time. That’s about as good as it gets.”
Except, this sounds like addiction to productivity or focus. Even meditation seems co-opted to increase productivity and focus attention. What would Buddha think of that?
Then, the article delves into the topics of neuroenhancers and lifehacks, the embodiments of this addiction to increasing productivity.
“Neuroenhancers spring from the same source as the problem they’re designed to correct: our lust for achievement in defiance of natural constraints.”
To legally use neuroenhancers, one needs a precription, but this might change as public sentiment for the enhancers changes. People use supplements of many kinds, illicit or not, to push past their barriers. Aren’t they akin to protein shakes and caffeine-laden coffee?
We try to push past natural human limits by using these neuroenhancers. But what new limits will we find beyond our current horizon? And will we search for new drugs to push past those as well? Rinse and repeat.
Lifehacking is the self-help phenomenom of using tips, tricks, or hacks to get yourself to do more things and keep from procrastinating in life.
What drives people to search for lifehacks? Are they so cripplingly unproductive they use these to turn their life around? Or are they already productive but now in search of a “better high”? Neuroenhancers are one type of lifehack.
“Where you allow your attention to go ultimately says more about you as a human being than anything that you put in your mission statement,” he continues.
This is interesting. Like the idea “it’s what you do that defines you”. Or “what you think, you become”. Your thoughts and emotions and preoccupations shape, in a large way, the person you become. Surround yourself with people who are like who you want to become.
Seems to make sense. If you’re mindful of where you put your attention, you’ll have power to control what kind of person you are. You can shape who you become, by choosing what you focus on. If you drift through life thoughtlessly and aimlessly, it’d be no surprise to end up as someone you’re not happy being.
Addicted to Productivity?
The variable ratio schedule of distraction can lead to dependence and addiction. But does productivity also follow a variable ratio schedule?
Like a person frequently refreshing their email inbox, to see if there’s something new, can a person repeatedly try to focus and be productive? When they fail to focus, that’s like not having a new email; they’re encouraged to try again shortly. But when they are productive, that’s like seeing a new email; it delivers that dopamine release, and reinforces their behavior.
Finding lifehacks related to productivity fills both these roles. The distraction is a little reward jolt. And it feels more productive, because you’re reading about being productive. And then you can apply the tip, and that might make you more productive. Or at least feel more productive, which is likely all that matters. If you’re then more productive, you get another little reward jolt.
In our quest for productivity, we’ll work and focus. And we’ll feel good about that. But will we soon find ourselves highly-productive, yet still unhappy? Highly-productive will be our new normal, our new baseline, and we’ll be unhappy with that in short order. This will drive us to seek new lifehacks, new neuroenhancers, in order to push past our new normal productivity levels and reach a higher ledge - to be ultra-highly-productive.
Sam also suggest that distraction is necessary to focusing later.
This sort of free-associative wandering is essential to the creative process; one moment of judicious unmindfulness can inspire thousands of hours of mindfulness.
If I never followed any of my distractions or other thoughts; if I never allowed myself to explore tangential ideas, then several of my recent posts would never exist. And creativity is connecting existing ideas in novel ways. If we focus on following what we know, just to be productive, we preclude seeing things from another angle.
Focus is a paradox—it has distraction built into it. The two are symbiotic…”
Our thoughts are fractal. Each sentence is composed of many words, and each word has many related thoughts. Each word within that related thought has additional, related thoughts. So you can explore one topic within a paragraph and find an entire world of ideas to entertain and delve into.
The hyperlinking nature of the web is analogous to the linking our mind does with memories. I can think of being a child, then swimming at the city pool, then the belly flop which lead to a lifeguard rescuing me, and how I later became a lifeguard, being tan for the summer, but quickly losing it in the fall. Each of these a narrative arc boiled down to a single phrase.
Benefits of Inattention
He suggests that ADHD may be beneficial. Maybe it’s an adaptation to our new world. I’ve heard this in another article too. Children are diagnosed with ADHD, because they don’t fit into the typical school system and its learning style. But these children can grow up to be successful adults, because they’re free to find work that fits their personality and learning style. We require all our children to learn in the same fashion, which spawns learning disorders, but adults have more freedom in how they approach life, so that those “disorders” can be advantages in their own right.
Both Can Be Advantageous
Will our culture become more fractal, and thus favor people whose thinking mirrors that nature? I expect we’ll find that shallow, wide focus will prove valuable just like deep, narrow focus can be. The focus used will depend on the task at hand. Attention isn’t one-size-fits-all; nothing in life is. The real power lies in knowing which to use for greatest effect.