Linda Stone on attention, computers, and education

Linda Stone, who coined the terms "continuous partial attention" and "email apnea" to describe some of the ways we unconsciously interact with our computers, discusses attention, education and computers with The Atlantic's James Fallows:

LS: Let's talk about reading or building things. When you did those things, nobody was giving you an assignment, nobody was telling you what to do--there wasn't any stress around it. You did these things for your own pleasure and joy. As you played, you developed a capacity for attention and for a type of curiosity and experimentation that can happen when you play. You were in the moment, and the moment was unfolding in a natural way.

You were in a state of relaxed presence as you explored your world. At one point, I interviewed a handful of Nobel laureates about their childhood play patterns. They talked about how they expressed their curiosity through experimentation. They enthusiastically described things they built, and how one play experience naturally led into another. In most cases, by the end of the interview, the scientist would say, "This is exactly what I do in my lab today! I'm still playing!"

An unintended and tragic consequence of our metrics for schools is that what we measure causes us to remove self-directed play from the school day. Children's lives are completely programmed, filled with homework, lessons, and other activities.. There is less and less space for the kind of self-directed play that can be a fantastically fertile way for us to develop resilience and a broad set of attention strategies, not to mention a sense of who we are, and what questions captivate us. We have narrowed ourselves in service to the gods of productivity, a type of productivity that is about output and not about results.

Linda Stone on Maintaining Focus in a Maddeningly Distractive World (via O'Reilly Radar)

The Amish Project

[Video Link] A young man disconnects from the "cloud" for 90 days, on a mission to reboot his connection with the world and the people he loves in it. (via Joe Sabia)

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)