Are you part of the hive mind? Is your day spent texting and tweeting and chatting and talking on the phone, keeping you completely aligned with her network of friends and associates? This may be a good thing. Who am I to judge? But, if we lose those moments of quiet and sustained concentration, I suspect that a quality of thought will also disappear.
There is a hint of a countertrend. I was especially struck by advocacy for introverts in the world that is, more and more, pushing team activity and offices without walls. There is evidence that some of the ideas and inventions upon which our culture is built have come through the uninterrupted efforts of people who value their time alone.
As a writer, I’m well aware of my own needs for sustained quiet time where I can give my full attention to a concept, a question or problem. I call these my “deep thought” times, and most people know enough to leave me alone when I get that serious, intense expression on my face. I have had the opportunity to build cathedrals in my mind, but these can be fragile. Interruptions can bring them down in a moment.
When I am in this kind of state (and it can last for as long as 14 hours for me), the rest of the world goes away. I believe that I am in “flow.” Now, when this stresses my body to the extent where my muscles cramp, I get dehydrated, and I otherwise suffer physically, it’s hard to see this as a positive thing. More typically, the flow will only last for 40 minutes to a couple of hours. In those cases, I am both physically and mentally refreshed.
Compare this to the anxious state created by continual distraction and interruption. Checking e-mail, racing after facts on the web, answering text messages, and so forth can appear to be urgent, even when it is not. It resembles a twitch response, and I think that such continual seeking is often pathological—a bad habit driven by avoidance of engagement and fear and offering diminishing returns.
As I stated last time, we still have buttons to turn our devices off. But what is often lacking is the willpower to do so. I mentioned “write or die” in a recent post. Here, the constant threat of punishment helps writers keep their focus. This application reminds me of the story of how Ray Bradbury wrote The illustrated Man. He was so poor that he did not have a typewriter. He got the work done by shoving coins into a pay typewriter at the library and writing furiously before each time allotment ran out. What seemed like torture may have been a gift. And it may be that we can create applications that emulate Bradbury’s experience beyond writing and help to build our powers of concentration and will.
I believe that an underappreciated aspect of attention has to do with the tiny screens we spend our days with. Working on a computer all day probably encourages us to seek distractions–not just because they are immediately available, but because the physical environment is so constrained.
I have a regular practice of working out ideas and problems on a whiteboard. When I come across and especially difficult problem, I’ll actually put a big piece of flip chart paper onto a table and begin to fill it with notes in the free-form manner. This provides almost endless scope for my imagination compared to the laptop screen. I have no sense of being constrained and no temptation to play with gadgets or search the Web.
The twitch goes away, both because I am physically involved (standing at table, selecting colored pens, walking around to put a note in a far corner, etc.) and because there is so much physical space available for me to interact with. It will be interesting to see, when tables become interactive screens, if the people who use them will develop greater powers of concentration and focus. I suspect this will be a possible outcome. My only hesitation on the matter comes from an observation that these systems appear to be promoted for teamwork rather than for the individual. No doubt they will help teams, but it would be a shame if these tables had to be shared all the time.
Another value of attention is less is missed. Certainly, a job is more likely to be complete if you have the opportunity to work without interruption and review it from start to finish. But evidence is also less likely to be missed. For my first chemistry class ever, all we did was write down our observations of a lit Bunsen burner. Given the amount of time available, I filled pages with observations of color, heat, smell, distortion of the air, and how the experience changed over time. It’s hard for me to imagine that students today have similar experiences.
More importantly, attention allows for more complete experiences of others, and it is of great value for building relationships. Clearly, recognizing the nuances of behavior, voice, expression and body languages in others requires focus and pays benefits by helping us to respond appropriately. But, even more importantly, we want others to pay attention to us. When we are with others and they are constantly being distracted, particularly by gadgets, it is difficult to continue to believe that the relationship is strong.
Many years ago, I wrote about how augmented reality might be able to help by cuing us to notice more about the people around us. I could see this idea becoming a reality with a combination of Google Goggles, information in the cloud and powerful inference systems. And I suspect that over time, as people use such augmented reality applications to perceive more about each other, they will develop the habits of observation that will help them to be more attentive to others, even when they are not wearing goggles.
We already have great evidence of how technology can train us to be more attentive. Simulations are used to build the attention skills of soldiers and pilots. More commonly, we can see that, when people take part in certain multiplayer games, they are completely focused on the world in which they are trying to achieve goals with their fellow players.
However, this also illustrates the problem of attention–it is always selective. Some of the real world is left out. The trick is to attend to the right things. And at times, distraction may be a better choice than focus. Some evidence indicates that people who drive are often so focused on the cars around them that they literally do not notice motorcycles—with tragic results. So the flip side of attention, distraction, needs to be woven properly into our lives.