The legitimacy of distraction

Written By: - Date published: 1:41 pm, May 23rd, 2009 - 1 comment
Categories: articles, science - Tags:


A cold weekend afternoon. Perfect timing for a distracting article on Twitter, Adderall, lifehacking, mindful jogging, power browsing, Obama’s BlackBerry, and the benefits of overstimulation. Sam Anderson presents thoughts in defence of distraction.

Over the last several years, the problem of attention has migrated right into the center of our cultural attention. We hunt it in neurology labs, lament its decline on op-ed pages, fetishize it in grassroots quality-of-life movements, diagnose its absence in more and more of our children every year, cultivate it in yoga class twice a week, harness it as the engine of self-help empires, and pump it up to superhuman levels with drugs originally intended to treat Alzheimer’s and narcolepsy. Everyone still pays some form of attention all the time, of course—it’s basically impossible for humans not to—but the currency in which we pay it, and the goods we get in exchange, have changed dramatically.

Amongst the humour these are some serious observations that seem appropriate to a blog readership:

…the next generation of attenders, the so-called ‘net-gen’ or ‘digital natives,’ kids who’ve grown up with the Internet and other time-slicing technologies. There’s been lots of hand-wringing about all the skills they might lack, mainly the ability to concentrate on a complex task from beginning to end, but surely they can already do things their elders can’t—like conduct 34 conversations simultaneously across six different media, or pay attention to switching between attentional targets in a way that’s been considered impossible…As we become more skilled at the 21st-century task Meyer calls ‘flitting,’ the wiring of the brain will inevitably change to deal more efficiently with more information.

So perhaps all this distraction is really a perverse sort of brain-training after all! Now back to counting raindrops….

One comment on “The legitimacy of distraction”

  1. Ianmac 1

    It has been estimated that at any point in time there are thousands of stimuli hitting the consciousness. Some people quite soon learn to manage and focus on just afew at a time. Some manage to wash the dishes, take part in a conversation, track the sounds the kids are making in the hallway, make an apple pie, and listen to the news on TV all at the same time which is what makes them good mothers! For those who have trouble managing all that at once, we call them autistic.

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