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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