Attention Deficit: A Bigger Disorder
Our behaviors are leading to a clinical disorder of attention deficit; and is all, spectacularly, backfiring. It’s time to start reversing course, while we still have a choice to make.
In 1971, long before we first surfed the Internet, and years before he went on to win both a Nobel Prize and a Turing Award (aka the ‘Nobel Prize for computing’) — a feat no one else has duplicated — Herbert Simon, one of the world’s great experts in “the architecture of complexity”, and a pioneer of many domains, including artificial intelligence, organizational theory, decision-making, problem-solving and information processing, warned us:
“In an information-rich world, the wealth of information means a dearth of something else: a scarcity of whatever it is that information consumes. 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.”
If only he could see us now.
Back in November, I used part of this quote to open a provocation on the myth of multi-tasking; that in fact, we cannot. Some of us, rather, are experts at shifting our focus between things rapidly; but that, in fact, the more we attempt to multi-task in our lives, the harder it becomes for our brains to reach their own baseline of human attention. Dan Goleman and Richard Davison, each a best-selling author focused on brain science, and co-authors of the book Altered Traits, found in their research that “heavy multi-taskers are more easily distracted in general, and when they have to focus on one thing, their brains activate many more areas than just those relevant to the task at hand — a neural indicator of distraction.”
In other words, multi-taskers have to use other parts of their brains to compensate for their reduced ability to focus ‘normally’.
I also wrote about research by Stanford University’s Eyal Ophir — a cognitive scientist — who in 2009 found that multi-tasking (what he colorfully calls ‘self-distraction’) leads to “reduced ability to filter…