Information consumes attention: focus in the age of abundant stimulus

In New York magazine, Sam Anderson ponders economist Herbert A. Simon's 1971 thoughts on the economics of attention: "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."

What follows is a conflicted, engaging look at attention, focus and the net, which really got to me:

This doomsaying strikes me as silly for two reasons. First, conservative social critics have been blowing the apocalyptic bugle at every large-scale tech-driven social change since Socrates’ famous complaint about the memory-destroying properties of that newfangled technology called “writing.” (A complaint we remember, not incidentally, because it was written down.) And, more practically, the virtual horse has already left the digital barn. It’s too late to just retreat to a quieter time. Our jobs depend on connectivity. Our pleasure-cycles—no trivial matter—are increasingly tied to it. Information rains down faster and thicker every day, and there are plenty of non-moronic reasons for it to do so. The question, now, is how successfully we can adapt...

...Gallagher admits that she’s been blessed with a naturally strong executive function. “It sounds funny,” she tells me, “but I’ve always thought of paying attention as a kind of sexy, visceral activity. Even as a kid, I enjoyed focusing. I could feel it in almost a mentally muscular way. I took a lot of pleasure in concentrating on things. I’m the sort of irritating person who can sit down to work at nine o’clock and look up at two o’clock and say, ‘Oh, I thought it was around 10:30...’ ”

...The most promising solution to our attention problem, in Gallagher’s mind, is also the most ancient: meditation. Neuroscientists have become obsessed, in recent years, with Buddhists, whose attentional discipline can apparently confer all kinds of benefits even on non-Buddhists. (Some psychologists predict that, in the same way we go out for a jog now, in the future we’ll all do daily 20-to-30-minute “secular attentional workouts.”) Meditation can make your attention less “sticky,” able to notice images flashing by in such quick succession that regular brains would miss them. It has also been shown to elevate your mood, which can then recursively stoke your attention: Research shows that positive emotions cause your visual field to expand. The brains of Buddhist monks asked to meditate on “unconditional loving-kindness and compassion” show instant and remarkable changes: Their left prefrontal cortices (responsible for positive emotions) go into overdrive, they produce gamma waves 30 times more powerful than novice meditators, and their wave activity is coordinated in a way often seen in patients under anesthesia...

...This is what the web-threatened punditry often fails to recognize: Focus is a paradox—it has distraction built into it. The two are symbiotic; they’re the systole and diastole of consciousness. Attention comes from the Latin “to stretch out” or “reach toward,” distraction from “to pull apart.” We need both. In their extreme forms, focus and attention may even circle back around and bleed into one other. Meyer says there’s a subset of Buddhists who believe that the most advanced monks become essentially “world-class multitaskers”—that all those years of meditation might actually speed up their mental processes enough to handle the kind of information overload the rest of us find crippling.

In Defense of Distraction

(via Beth Pratt)

(Image: Meditation Room, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from joeshlabotnik's photostream)

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  1. All this meditation sounds like it would interfere with my valuable icanhascheezburger time. Nothing a dash of the ol’ ritalin can’t fix…

  2. To say that information consumes attention is similar to saying that petrol consumes cars. If we find an unlimited supply of oil we would need to think a little bit more carefully about where we could travel (now that we are fully unrestricted in our access to fuel), but its abundance would be irrelevant if we decided that we did not actually need, or want, to go anywhere.

    Attention consumes information and the amount of information we would need to consume depends on what it is we desire to accomplish. An overabundance of information only becomes detrimental here if what one desires to accomplish is to consume all of the information available, for its own sake.

  3. Quite interesting, and true. Related: I like the question: what is attention? Allowing the other party to influence our mind? Attention can be quite valuable…
    But then turn it around, you want someone to pay attention to your works? What about a robot? Why not? Because it doesn’t have a mind? But then what is the difference in attention between a web crawler and someone with way too many twitter feeds? Both are basically tagging information nowadays. If you could construct a twitter-bot retweeting with similar pattern as a user, would the bot be an A.I. or have the overworked user reduced himself to an algorithm? Perhaps one could escape this by stating that the difference is not the behavior but the change. I.e. learning something. But that requires attention. I like this stuff.

    Attention could be the real value when everything is networked:

    1. A very important set of questions to answer, I think. To me, attention has always been the generation of internal reactions in response to only a limited number of immediate external stimuli, with the lower the number of stimuli, the greater the attention. In this way, we can value human attention because of the opportunity cost inherent to it – if someone is paying attention to us, that someone is not doing something else. You don’t get this with robots – if a robot is charged with ‘reading’ everything and ‘evolving’ in response to it all, then the attention we receive from the robot in no way privileges our work. The attention of an omniscient deity would be irrelevant by the same argument, for that matter…

      1. I agree. That is what makes attention such a valuable form of ‘currency’; attention is a rare asset when there are more works that anyone can read. An omniscient deity’s attention would just as you write also lose its value on those grounds. (I am not sure I agree about robots as even machine-multitasking today is only time-slicing, and requires energy and time, but anyway, I think I get what you mean.)  Anyway, this begs the next question: is attention without (re)action worth anything, or are they equal? If someone is omniscient, and can pay attention to everything, but only reacts to some things, do we have the same problem but have merely replaces the word attention with reaction? So, in that case, is the attention we count the fact that something changes in the world?

        On a half-related node: Perhaps the reader-producer relationship is going to come swinging around. If attention, and allowing ourselves to be influenced, is worth something (may in fact be the most valuable thing in a networked society) then isn’t the value-relationship turned on its head? This is at least how it has seemed to me the last while. What if you get paid to consume. Why would someone do that? Because your mind is the only place host a meme. You don’t need attention to spread, but to influence. So if you construct an idea and you want impact you need attention. I wonder if there are already examples?

        1. You make a very though-provoking argument, but I would have to disagree with the conclusions. I disagree precisely for the same reasons for which I see talk of “information consuming attention” as equivalent to “petrol consuming cars”. Starting from the fundamentals:

          Influence: getting others to do what they otherwise would not have done, ostensibly because these actions would be in the influencer’s own interests.

          Payment: (a) reward for the expenditure of effort for the production of value consumed by a third party; (b) the most direct way to influence people.

          Influencing someone, therefore, is only as valuable as what that person can do for you as a result of being influenced, and paying someone to let you attempt to influence them only makes when the total expected cost (the payment for attention and the effort of influencing adjust for the expected rate of failure of the attempt to influence) is less than paying people directly. Thus, any payment made will not be for the effort of attention (as attention requires little extra effort – unless we are asleep, we are paying attention to *something*), but as part pre-payment for the effort of some future action.

          Because of this, I can see scope for a system in which people are directly paid for watching advertising (whether for product or base politics, in the latter case with existing supporters paying to acquire new supporters), but never for the consumption of content they would consume of their own accord. After all, the only reason anyone would do anything of their own accord is if they get out of it more than they put into it.

          Of course, there is some satisfaction from the knowledge that people are paying attention and reacting to your work, but that satisfaction stems from the fact that they pay attention freely, of their own accord, and without the expectation of further reward. They pay attention to your work because it benefits them, to the extent that one would be able to charge them money for it, were one so inclined. The satisfaction comes from knowing that such high value is accorded to the the fruits of one’s internal efforts (e.g. thoughts, and as opposed to the apples one can grow and sell in the market). And it does not matter if there is reaction or not – Stephen King, for instance, probably does not care about how tangible the reaction to his work is of every of his readers. IN any case, start paying the audience for attention and reaction, and this satisfaction disappears and we are back to the dynamics described above.

        2. What you’re talking about is advertisements, essentially: capturing parts of people’s attention, often in exchange for something of value. For example, on TV they reward the attention you give to ads with the entertainment they show inbetween. It’s not money directly, but it’s something of value nevertheless.

  4. I just read that entire article rather than getting to work on my current project. I am the person who had to stop life-hacking because all the time spent on life-hacking websites stopped me from getting anything done.

  5. Meditation isn’t much of an option for those of us who are a little ADD.  As a matter of fact, this onrush of information is a godsend for us.

  6. “What information consumes is rather obvious: It consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention…”
    i tend to disagree. 

    it is not the information itself that does the consuming, it is the processing of information itself, as performed by the attendee who is also the owner of the attention in the first place.

    when you point with your finger somewhere and say “Look!” to me, and i look … doesn’t this mean i no longer control my own attention? 

    so the problem is imho that people need to learn how to control their own attention.

    to some degree people’s bodies act like the bodies of sheep; you can watch this phenomenon in a group of six-year-old boys playing soccer. from a bodily perspective our attention seems to prefer being in sync with other people’s attention. 

    so what “device” do we have to control our own attention, when our mind is part of our body and our body prefers to “follow” the shared attention?

    how do we learn to control our own attention,
    assuming that “our” attention is ours indeed?

    best regards, Ron

    1. I started meditating during an extremely anxiety-ridden time of my life. When I started I could hardly sit for ten minutes without my mind going rather batty, which just seemed to add to my anxiety. After a while, however, I was able to concentrate on what my mind was doing, and all the crazy things that were happening in there. What I noticed after a couple of years (besides being able to sleep more soundly at night) was my ability to control my attention. It seemed that by simply sitting and observing all of the crazy things that passed over my mind, I was training myself to observe, manage, and control my mind both during meditation as well as during the rest of the day. The pace of my life hasn’t slowed one bit–I am just as busy as I was when I started meditating–what has changed is my ability to not let my mind get all caught up in the million things that are going on around me.

  7. Distraction is what happens if you don’t have any deadlines to meet. If you desperately need to get something done very soon, you’ll find the problem goes away. Unless, of course, you can’t control the interruptions, but that’s another matter.

  8.  Attention comes from the Latin “to stretch out” or “reach toward,” distraction from “to pull apart.”

    This actually corresponds to my philosophy of focus and defocus. I try to shift between periods of intense focus of particular tasks, in which large blocks of time and mental effort are used to resolve major “nuts to crack” and periods of defocus during which I free associate, and collect the components for focused work.

    For example, in a recent project I collected the parts for a sous vide cooker and surfed the web for best implementations while defocused. I then spent several hours of focused work to implement the  cooker.

    Attention and distraction, focus and defocus are rather like momentum and position in quantum mechanics, quantities which are not antithetical but instead must be balanced.

  9. The article is interesting, but I am responding negatively to the reductionism about emotions and feelings. They get only cursory mention.  

    Information is useful but psycho-social emotional health is ESSENTIAL.  Meditation is a cheap, self-contained way to maintain one’s emotional well-being!  Sure, meditators process more information better.  Great. But if there is psychosis, then who cares how much information?  It would be getting processed through faulty hardware! It would be like talking about powering Deep Blue with car batteries and a hamster wheel.

  10. I read the entire article without abandoning it in the middle after I got the main point! Hurray! Now, if I could just get focused on today’s deadlines that I’m getting paid to meet.

  11. Meditation is really hard work but it pays off. I try to meditate for an hour every day, just as I try to get regular physical exercise. It has been very difficult but also very beneficial to my psychological well-being.  What is the goal of meditation you might ask? 
    “If our goal is, as has sometimes been said in the Western psychological tradition, to reach an ordinary level of neurosis, then the goal of Buddhist practice takes us far beyond that. It is to free us from neurosis or to shift identity so that we are no longer subject to those forces in an ordinary way; we are liberated from the power of those forces. And the fact that this is possible for us as human beings is tremendously good news.” -Jack Kornfield
    My recommendation for anyone interested in learning how to meditate is to read “Mindfulness in Plain English” by Bhante Henepola Gunaratana

  12. Meditation is indeed difficult. I spent a year with a dedicated hour for it every day, even setting a timer so that I wouldn’t be tempted to look at the clock. I saw no effect on my ADD but I did it for religious reasons and not to improve my productivity.

  13. Distracted: The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age  is a book discussing the problem & possible outcome.  Well worth reading – if you can give it enough attention.

  14. Was incredibly jealous of this experience: Joshua Foer, writing in Slate after a weeklong experiment with Adderall,
    said the drug made him feel like he’d “been bitten by a radioactive
    spider”—he beat his unbeatable brother at Ping-Pong, solved anagrams,
    devoured dense books. “The part of my brain that makes me curious about
    whether I have new e-mails in my in-box apparently shut down,” he wrote.

    I take Adderall by legal prescription to treat diagnosed ADHD. All it does for me is make it possible for me to “buckle down” and work on something. I don’t get cleverer. I can just keep myself on-task like normal people do.

    Now I really wish Adderall did for me what it did for Foer….I could use a little mental performance enhancement.

  15. I managed to make it to the next to the last paragraph of the article before opening up another webpage. It was just a reflexive habit.

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