You open the front door and are overwhelmed by the most fantastic, enticing, delicious cooking smells. Half an hour later, you can’t even smell them anymore. But then a guest arrives at the door and gushes, “YUM!! It smells great in here.” The cooking smells haven’t gone away. You’ve simply gotten used to them. It turns out the same is true for thoughts. Half an hour staring at that blank piece of paper—or in a long committee or board meeting (do you hear me? I bet you do!)–and what may have seemed deliciously fragrant at first either has evaporated or maybe even smells a bit rancid. Someone else walking in fresh might be inspired all over again but you’re too used to it to experience it anew.
Is there anything you can do to retrieve that first, inspiring thought again? Yes. It’s simple: Distract yourself. Do something different and fresh–and then return to the original task.
That’s the words of wisdom from a new study reported in Science Daily, reversing decades of research on the nature off attention. It turns out that brief diversions can “dramatically improve one’s ability to focus on that task for prolonged periods.”
Finally, a study of attention that truly matches what we now know about the brain biology of attention. I know we’re going to be seeing more and more of these because the paradigm of attention has changed. As I keep saying, when you change the paradigm, you see differently. That is as true for scientific research as it is for the rest of life. Only when you see differently can you change the research design. Only when you change the research design do you start finding new observations instead of replicating old ones.
What this study shows us is that you need to distract yourself from a task occasionally in order to perform it well. It is no different for thought than it is for sensation. Once you acclimate, you lose power to pay attention because attention, we now know, by definition is that which disrupts the ordinary. We don’t pay attention to what we take for granted. Attention, in a sense, is distraction. If we’re not distracted enough, we aren’t paying attention as well as we think we are. We’re on mental cruise control (to use another metaphor). That’s not a very attentive way to perform, and it certainly isn’t the way to win the race.
All the hype and anxiety about how this information age is making us so distracted that we’re dumber and less productive is based on a very narrow-cast idea of attention that has little to do with what we now know about the complex neural networks that make up our brain science. Even William James, the first philosopher/psychologist (they were the same thing back then) to write about attention in English, found it dubious reducing attention to just one thing. In The Principles of Psychology (1890) James wanted to talk about our interruptions of concentration and, to do so, had to borrow the French word “distraction” because the concept didn’t exist in English. But even in writing “about what the French call distraction,” James wasn’t sure attention was all-or-nothing. He also wondered about the minds’ ability to distract itself, without external causes. He even pondered the mind’s tendency to become bored with itself when it wasn’t, as the French say, distracted. Unfortunately, however, much of twentieth-century psychology had a more single-minded (pun intended) view of the mind and treated attention as if it had an off and an on switch: the mind is paying attention now; the mind is not paying attention now. A lot of research on what is called “stimulus dependent attention” (disruption from external causes) treats it as a bad thing, deviating from the assembly-line orderliness of the rational twentieth-century mind. No wonder that this interactive, customizing, remixing, remashing, interconnected Internetted and World Wide Webbed twenty-first century has psychologists worried that we’re all just a distracted, disorderly mess!
Well, the mind doesn’t work that way. In fact, the mind is lots more like the Internet than it is like an assembly line. And attention works less like a light switch than like someone surfing the web, looking for what interests them, then clicking to something else when it doesn’t. Now, finally, researchers are starting to get past their own stuck-in-a-rut idea of single-minded distraction. It’s exciting. I know we are in for a sea change in the research. This new study is certainly a beginning and I predict we’re soon going to be seeing more and more of the same.
As a practical matter, it is great for all who have to do extended projects or sit in extended meetings to know there’s a simple way to revive our flagging attention. Distract yourself! Look elsewhere, do something completely different. Every smoker knows this. What smoker hasn’t said, at some point, that the nicotine is addictive enough; what really hooks you is the pacing and the periodic breaks from work and routine that smoking demands.
Instead of new software programs to keep you on track, we need to be developing The Distractor: a program that bombards you every fifteen minutes or so with a knock-knock joke or a recipe or lolcat or a YouTube video or a picture of Cousin Megan’s new baby. Oh, I guess we have that already. It’s called Facebook. And, maybe everyone, it’s a darn good thing for our attention that we do have this and other delightful distractions at our disposal.
If you want the reference to the full study, you can check it out here: http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/02/110208131529.htm
In the meantime, I hope this little post provided a very useful distraction from your otherwise very busy, focused day.