I thought it was just me getting old. When I’m distracted – by phone, tweet, cat fight – from a task that I’m intensely involved in – reading, writing, reading – it takes me a while to get my focus back. But now the reports are suggesting that attention is normal. From The New Atlantis » The Myth of Multitasking.
One study by researchers at the University of California at Irvine monitored interruptions among office workers; they found that workers took an average of twenty-five minutes to recover from interruptions such as phone calls or answering e-mail and return to their original task.
It might be that the workers are just looking for a reason to avoid a task and email provides that excuse. Or maybe smoking dope:
In 2005, the BBC reported on a research study, funded by Hewlett-Packard and conducted by the Institute of Psychiatry at the University of London, that found, “Workers distracted by e-mail and phone calls suffer a fall in IQ more than twice that found in marijuana smokers.”
But fMRI scans have found neuro-cognitive evidence for difficulties in handling multiple tasks.
Marois found evidence of a “response selection bottleneck” that occurs when the brain is forced to respond to several stimuli at once. As a result, task-switching leads to time lost as the brain determines which task to perform. Psychologist David Meyer at the University of Michigan believes that rather than a bottleneck in the brain, a process of “adaptive executive control” takes place, which “schedules task processes appropriately to obey instructions about their relative priorities and serial order,” as he described to the New Scientist. … But his research has also found that multitasking contributes to the release of stress hormones and adrenaline, which can cause long-term health problems if not controlled, and contributes to the loss of short-term memory.
Then there’s cognitive development and The Future to worry about: What about The Children? Smart, but impatient:
The picture that emerges of these pubescent multitasking mavens is of a generation of great technical facility and intelligence but of extreme impatience, unsatisfied with slowness and uncomfortable with silence: “I get bored if it’s not all going at once, because everything has gaps—waiting for a website to come up, commercials on TV, etc.” one participant said.
And because impatient, they are lacking in moral character:
[William] James believed that the transition from youthful distraction to mature attention was in large part the result of personal mastery and discipline—and so was illustrative of character. “The faculty of voluntarily bringing back a wandering attention, over and over again,” he wrote, “is the very root of judgment, character, and will.”
It always comes back to ethos, behavior connected to character. Sit in the chair, shut off the tv, read your book, and have a little patience, for God’s sake, or you’ll grow up to be one of those iPhone using, latte-drinking drivers that coast through stop lights. Or worse.
brb. coffees ready
[image: GTD wallpaper for iPhone]
Update: Linda Stone has some notes and anecdotal speculation concerning what she calls Continuous Partial Attention.
To pay continuous partial attention is to pay partial attention — CONTINUOUSLY. It is motivated by a desire to be a LIVE node on the network. Another way of saying this is that we want to connect and be connected. We want to effectively scan for opportunity and optimize for the best opportunities, activities, and contacts, in any given moment. To be busy, to be connected, is to be alive, to be recognized, and to matter.
Generalizes to others a lot of personal claims (swap in I for every use of we and it becomes visible), and makes a lot of claims that are asserted but not demonstrated, so it requires attentive reading. Takes on more than a little of the self-help feel: “Breathing determines emotion. Emotion determines breathing.”