Paying attention isn't a simple act of self-discipline, but a cognitive ability with deep neurobiological roots — and these roots, says Maggie Jackson, are in danger of dying.
In Distracted: The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age, Jackson explores the effects of "our high-speed, overloaded, split-focus and even cybercentric society" on attention. It's not a pretty picture: a never-ending stream of phone calls, e-mails, instant messages, text messages and tweets is part of an institutionalized culture of interruption, and makes it hard to concentrate and think creatively.
Of course, every modern age is troubled by its new technologies. "The telegraph might have done just as much to the psyche [of] Victorians as the Blackberry does to us," said Jackson. "But at the same time, that doesn't mean that nothing has changed. The question is, how do we confront our own challenges?"
Wired.com talked to Jackson about attention and its loss.
Wired.com: Is there an actual scientific basis of attention?
Maggie Jackson: In the last 30 or 40 years, scientists have made inroads into understanding its underlying mechanisms and physiology. Attention is now considered an organ system. It has its own circuitry in the brain, and there are specialized networks carrying out its different forms. Each is very specific and can be traced through neuroimaging and even some genetic research.
The first type of attention is orientation — the flashlight of your mind. It involves the parietal lobe, a brain area related to sensory processing, which works with brain sections related to frontal eye fields. This is what develops in an infants' brain, allowing them to focus on something new in their environment.
The second type of attention spans the spectrum of response states, from sleepiness to complete alertness. The third type is executive attention: planning, judgment, resolving conflicting information. The heart of this is the anterior cingulate — an ancient, tiny part of the brain that is now at the heart of our higher-order skills. It's executive attention that lets us move us beyond our impulsive selves, to plan for the future and understand abstraction.
We are programmed to be interrupted. We get an adrenalin jolt when orienting to new stimuli: Our body actually rewards us for paying attention to the new. So in this very fast-paced world, it's easy and tempting to always react to the new thing. But when we live in a reactive way, we minimize our capacity to pursue goals.
Wired.com: What does it mean to be distracted?
Jackson: Literally, it means to be pulled away to something secondary. There's also an a interesting, archaic definition that fell out of favor in the 18th century: being pulled to pieces, being scattered. I think that's a lovely term.
Our society right now is filled with lovely distractions — we have so much portable escapism and mediated fantasy — but that's just one issue. The other is interruption — multitasking, the fragmentation of thought and time. We're living in highly interrupted ways. Studies show that information workers now switch tasks an average of every three minutes throughout the day. Of course that's what we have to do to live in this complicated world.
Wired.com: How do these interruptions affect us?
Jackson: This degree of interruption is correlated with stress and frustration and lowered creativity. That makes sense. When you're scattered and diffuse, you're less creative. When your times of reflection are always punctured, it's hard to go deeply into problem-solving, into relating, into thinking.
These are the problems of attention in our new world. Gadgets and technologies give us extraordinary opportunities, the potential to connect and to learn. At the same time, we've created a culture, and are making choices, that undermine our powers of attention.
Wired.com: Has a direct link been measured between interruptions and neurophysiology?
Jackson: Interruptions are correlated with stress, and a cascade of stress hormones accompany that state of being. Stress, frustration and lowered creativity are pretty toxic. And there are studies showing how the environment shapes brain development in kids.
But I can't say if attention fragmentation really rewires our brains. When you sit at a desk for six hours multitasking like a maniac, are you actually snipping out parts of your attention networks? That's difficult to say right now.
Wired.com: Is establishing that link the next scientific step?
Jackson: It's one avenue for future research. Right now, the field of attention science is now more concerned with attention development in children. The networks develop at different paces. Orientation is in place by kindergarten. The executive network is in place by age 8, but it develops until the mid-20s. Understanding the sweet spots for helping kids develop attention is where the science is at.
Wired.com: So adults are out of luck?
Jackson: We do know that people can be trained to improve attention networks, though we're not sure how long-lasting the gains are. There are exercises and computer games that boost short-term memory.
The only sort training going on now in the office world is meditation-based, and that's being used more for stress rather than to boost attention, although it does do that. In terms of mainstream research, there's nothing I'm aware of that's being done to help the average adult, though there's tremendous interest in what's possible.
But there are ways to cut back on the multitasking and interruptions, shaping your own environment and work style so that you better use your attentional networks. If you have a difficult problem or a conundrum to solve, you need to think about where you work best. Right now, people hope they'll be able to think or create or problem-solve in the midst of a noisy, cluttered environment. Quiet is a starting point.
The other important thing is to discuss interruption as an environmental question and collective social issue. In our country, stillness and reflection are not especially valued in the workplace. The image of success is the frenetic multitasker who doesn't have time and is constantly interrupted. By striving towards this model of inattention, we're doing ourselves a tremendous injustice.
Wired.com: The subtitle of your book predicts a "coming dark age." Do you really believe this?
Jackson: Dark ages are times of forgetting, when the advancements of the past are underutilized. If we forget how to use our powers of deep focus, we'll depend more on black-and-white thinking, on surface ideas, on surface relationships. That breeds a tremendous potential for tyranny and misunderstanding. The possibility of an attention-deficient future society is very sobering.