A number of things popping up about attention.
I wrote an interview with Linda Stone the other day (see A Chat With Linda Stone) where the central theme was continuous partial attention, a term she coined some years ago. Here’s what I wrote this week:
Linda wanted both to make clear what she really believes and to see if we really were in agreement.
She started by trying to clarify her thoughts on continuous partial attention (CPA) stating that CPA is not the disorder that is besetting us. The disorder is ADD, she says, while CPA is — in small doses, anyway — a sensible adaptive behavior to the always-on, crazybusy world we live in. But if we surrender to CPA, we lose something significant, she maintains, and an excess of CPA means we start to live life in a crisis management mode, and any manner of dangers appear when we don’t pay attention to what is in front of us, and instead remain connected to the outside world.
In particular, Linda focused on the importance of paying attention to people as an aspect of building relationships. She talked about relationship building as one of the key benefits of staff meetings. When people turn off their phones, shut the screens of their PCs, and pay attention, she asserts that there is a different quality to the meeting, because people are incredibly responsive to the attention of others.
Still, maybe my sense of disagreement with Linda is some fundamental psychological issue. When I was chatting with her, I recalled my freshman physics class, where the professor simply talked too slow for me. This was in the early 70s so there were no laptops or sidekicks to help me while away the seemingly endless gaps between his words. So I listened to music on a pre-walkman cassette player, and read the text from my chemistry class. The professor actually came up to me after the third or fourth class, to ask me what I was up to, and I told him he spoke so slowly I was going to sleep, so I used this technique to remain — paradoxically — focused on the class. After I started to turn in A’s he stopped worrying about it.
And perhaps Linda is right, on some level, about the relationship issue: if somehow I had been able to remain laser focused on the instructor, instead of having my mind wander, we might have had some life-changing relationship emerge. Instead I opted for a relationship-reducing path, but one that led to me meeting the near-term goal of getting an A in physics, as well as in chemistry. In fact I got straight A’s that year, and made the Dean’s list, and one of the tricks I used was time-slicing at every opportunity: reading my notes over for physics whever my calculus instructor was reviewing something I had down cold already.
Maybe this is what Linda considers a sensible application of CPA, not an excessive one. But my hunch is that a lot of the stuff that I think is sensible — like IMing with colleagues about project A while on a telcon with other colleagues talking about project B — would be over the line with Linda. However, I have surrendered to the crazybusy cycle, and instead of trying to turn back the clock, I am looking for a better clock: one with more hands, running on a rate faster than seconds. I am looking for better technology to save me before I fall off the edge I am dancing on. In a post yesterday (What’s Missing: A Web 2.0 Critique), I called out for a better sort of personal/social information management tool. I know I need it, and if I do, there are millions of others out there looking for it.
Some of what Linda says seems like a request for better ettiquette surrounding social interaction in the always on world. Fine. But maybe the reason it sounds oldtimey to me is that I don’t spend my time in large corporations, in staff meetings, or the like. I am a soloist, spending most of my time connected to people remotely, and that sense of connection, however tenuous, is all that I have. I have to remain in touch with my posse, or I have nothing but myself. There is no organization backing me up.
That post got one lonely comment, from Daniel Belanger, who wrote:
There is a phenomenon I have only seen in the States. Here is what Stowe wrote in one paragraph:
“Perhaps because I am more ADD than her….”
I have heard countless times, this almost pride in people putting ADD on their nametag. And it always sound like the ultimate excuse for I don’t know what. ADD is mainly a fabrication of the drug market in America. Not such a concern abroad, maybe because it doesn’t quite exist as it is pretended here. And for some, it is cool. “Oh yeah, I have ADD, I know now how to live with it. That is why I can’t stay focus. Well I guess you will have to deal with it then.” Another way to deflect responsibility. “Sorry I can’t manage my attention, I can’t stay focus, not my fault, I have attention deficit disorder. Did you know it was a disease? Well at least according to the drug industry.”
Proclaiming you have ADD does what? Unless you find some kind of satisfaction for a problem of insecurity. In fact what is the point to bring forth the so-called disorder? What good does someone see in the need to tell another that he has ADD?
No I do not have such a thing called ADD. Which I quite don’t get. This country has this annoying habit to declare itself full of disorders, only to satisfy the hungry drug companies. Anyone has Restless Leg Syndrome? (this one makes me laugh) Acid Reflex Disorder? Please, give me a break.
To which I responded:
It’s not pride, per se, that leads me to dub myself as ADD, but a kind of ju jitsu. All those years reading the teacher’s comments on my report card — “poor impulse control” is one of the best — leads to a kind of reverse pride in my accomplishments, despite my inability to sit still in math class.
I don’t drug myself for it, because for what I have there are no drugs.
I wrote a piece not too long ago about US entrepreneurialism being closely linked to the hypomanic psychological profile, those restless, curious, inveterately optimistic types who fearlessly thrown themselves off the cliffs to start-up new companies (see here)
I opined that the genetic predisposition toward hypomania is likely associated with immigration: the same psychological orientation as entrepreneurs. So maybe the reason we talk so much about ADD in the States, rather than Europe, is the immigration patterns work that way. All the hypomanics lit out for the territories, and left the calm, collected, and passive types back in the villages of Europe.
The typical geek trains their brain to be heavily focused while multitasking day after day. Is it surprising that this same brain does not do well when forced to isolate down to one task? Listening in a meeting is a very isolated, very passive event. Coding, developing, debugging — these are not passive at all. The geek brain is just not trained to sit quietly and listen.
The answer is to do what we have done: put oursleves in roles where multitasking — continuous partial attention — is a strength, not an illness. However, the math and physcis teachers of the world are not amused: even if we get A’s and a Phi Beta Kappa key (yes, I did). Hypomanics are charismatic, but drive authoritarian types like Belanger crazy (yes, he is: check his PersonalDNA. The purple = very high authoritarianism.).
It comes as no surprise that the media that we are exposed to in our youth influences the wiring of the brain. A recent study supports the idea that TV watching leads to ADHD (hypomania) in later life:
A study from the American Academy of Pediatrics shows that watching videos as a toddler may lead to Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD, also called ADD in UK) in later life.
TV watching “rewires” an infant’s brain, says Dr. Dimitri A. Christakis lead researcher and director of the Child Health Institute at Children’s Hospital and Regional Medical Center, Seattle, Wash. The damage shows up at age 7 when children have difficulty paying attention in school.
“In contrast to the way real life unfolds and is experienced by young children, the pace of TV is greatly sped up.” says Christakis. His research appears in the April 2004 issue of Pediatrics. Quick scene shifts of video images become “normal,” to a baby “when in fact, it’s decidedly not normal or natural.” Christakis says. Exposing a baby’s developing brain to videos may overstimulate it, causing permanent changes in developing neural pathways.
“Also in question is whether the insistent noise of television in the home may interfere with the development of ‘inner speech’ by which a child learns to think through problems and plans and restrain impulsive responding,” wrote Jane Healy, psychologist and child brain expert in the magazine’s commentary.
And we are entering a world where children that could use computers and video games BEFORE THEY COULD TALK are in high school, and soon moving into the work force. These media also rewire the brain in unforeseen ways.
But don’t get me wrong. I am not advocating TV for infants. I dislike TV. I am suggesting that all media rewire us as we learn to accomodate it. And the use of computers — for whatever purpose, games, blogging, IM, whatever — is rewiring us, collectively, inevitably.
I am not driving a tractor on the lower forty, or rowing out to fish for a living. I am a computer geek, and spend hours every day fooling around with computers, typing, reading, email, IM. Of course I am wired differently after years of that. How could it be otherwise?
The results? Changes in how we perceive the world and our place in it. And this is not just small, subtle changes. They are big, and active. We are actively opting to do things differently. The manner of our adaptations are socially intrusive and disruptive: we IM in meetings, read books while others are lecturing, or look out the windows when we are supposed to be focused on the One Big Thing For Today, Or Else. Or light out for the territories. Or start a company.