Blog Post

What Do We Mean By Attention, Distraction, and MultiTasking? #FutureEd

Over on the "History and Future of Higher Education" site, several people are engaged in yet another pretty remarkable, high level, and serious discussion of attention, multitasking, and distraction:  I offered the very long series of comments back in this dialogue.   And, as part of #FutureEd, I've made a commitment to share some of what is happening in the MOOC beyond the MOOC.  So here are my comments.  To be part of the dialogue, you have to go to the link.  (I believe you will only be able to see and participate, though, if you are registered.)


This is a great thread and I can offer a few insights that address several points in several comments:

  • In the West, we have a very impoverished tradition of understanding attention. William James is the first person to write about attention in English, as he says in his famous chapter.  Attention is key to meditative practice, and in that very long tradition, it is well known that, given a space with no distractions, the mind goes wild.   There is a reason Buddha is the only person to have truly attained mindfulness.  Without distractions, the mind is not quiet at all.  It tends to constantly derail its own thinking and interrupt itself.   So any simplistic positing of "attention" versus "distraction" doesn't understand enough about the operations of the brain that we tend to ignore except in meditation or other structured moments of introspection.
  • When we feel too distracted to work, I think that is one of the few clues we have that something is wrong--and it offers us the possibility for introspection.  If we are distracted, it's either because we are tired, bored, resenting the work we have to do, or have other conditions that take precedence over our work.  I like to say that heartburn (the body) and heartache (emotions) are far more distracting than email or having too many screens open.  If you are distracted, consider that a great cue that something else is more important, amiss, stressing you out, etc.  Distraction is our friend--because, if we think of it as competition for our attention, then we can stop and ask ourselves what is competing, why do we pay more attention to it than to what we need to get down, and under what conditions can we change the balance if we need to?
  • I don't believe there is such a thing as multitasking--or of monotasking.  Again, our definitions of both are highly impoverished.  The brain does not know how to monotask.  If I am sitting in a room breathing, talking, and looking around me, I am multitasking.  If I am driving, I am multitasking.  If I am reading a book, I'm multitasking (a task far easier for some than others:  this is what dyslexia is; reading is new to human evolution, less than 10,000 years, and we have so much to learn how we take the complexity of linguistic and non-linguistic interaction, boil that down to words, and then convey meaning from those words that, operative in real life, are tremendously ambiguous and often dependent on the relationship of speaker to listener--a condition of agency far less developed in IndoEuropean languages than in some others such as Navajo or conversational (but not written) Japanese.  Reading is one of the most multitasking things we do, even before we account for content, which is why it takes so much mental effort and why we can get "lost in a book" and not notice fading light or the passage of time or someone entering and leaving the room,  etc.  What we really mean when we say we are "multitasking" is that we're either proud of ourselves for doing several things at once that might stump another person or even us at another moment (when we were tired, less practiced, less habituated to certain procedures) or we are defeated by too much going on at once.  
  • Multitasking basically means we are on the verge of exceeding what, for us, is our cognitive capacity.   I happen to be dyslexic so reading a newspaper where there are not the right kinds of spacings between columns is far more multitasking for me than writing a blog, answering an email, going on to twitter, coming back to the article due to my editor that day, etc etc.   Few people can write as fast as me, almost everyone can read more quickly--so multitasking for me is different than for you.  Also, I started life as a singer and so I find it almost impossible to do anything serious with music on, especially singers:  my attention goes to the music and, on an almost residually professional level, I'm analyzing breath control, chest tone, consonant articulation, etc.   It's not 'background' for me but foreground.  Therefore, for me, multitasking.   Yet I can do almost anything complex with the TV on to certain channels (and prefer to do bills, taxes, etc this way).  I've studied lots of this hooked up to machines, taking notes and analyzing them, etc.   The point is we are all different. 
  • The other point goes back to "unlearning."  A two year old is a whiz on an iPad because they learn it from scratch.  Anyone who has had other habits with other machines has to unlearn old habits before she can be efficient with new ones.  Habits are central to "attention blindness" (or what psychologists a bit pretentiously and a bit wrongly call "inattentional blindness").   When we have a habit, the thing we are doing just happens, it doesn't seem like a task at all so, if we add something to it, it feels like mono not multitasking.  If that practice is new, not yet habitual, then anything we add to it is taxing since the tax itself is.   The downside, of course, is that we do not see our habits so it is harder to examine them to see if the really help us or if they just are more comfortable.  That's why it is upsetting to change the status quo.  We make visible what is taken for granted.  And it is easier to build upon what is taken for granted--even if it does not, in the end, serve us as well as unlearning that habit and learning a better one would be. 
  • Example:  I know leaving two spaces after a period is bad in programming world.  But I type so fast that I'm not about to unlearn my instant, unthinking habit of putting in two spaces after a period.  I think less clearly without my very fast typing (that I never think about except in moments like this).  I don't want to think about spaces after periods. I want to think about these ideas.   Downside of my obstinance: I or someone else has to erase the extra space or, in some situations, it messes up programming.  Just about all of life is like that. You make choices between easy, quick habits that may not serve you well and the difficult business of unlearning your habits in order, in the end, to do somethng better.  You are constantly weighing whether the investment is worth it.  It's a good metaphor.  And it works on micro and macro levels.  

1 comment

Miles Kinsman, an Ocelot Scholar, has written an analysis of Noah, a short film that could be used as a prompt to discuss multitasking as well as other issues you raised in your lecture on 21st century literacies.  At 17:28, the film is a bit longer than the length of film I tend to prefer for a discussion prompt, but because of its quality both as a film and in terms of its ability to spark discussion, I would screen it again.  One of the strong parts of Kinsman's analysis is that he includes several rhetorical questions that can also be used as discussion prompts.  (Note:  There is some brief nudity and sexual situations in the film because the protagonist uses Chat Roulette.)