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  • Writer's pictureAnna K. Schaffner

Attention!

Three Damaging Myths about Attention that Prevent Cognitive Thriving


Anna Katharina Schaffner | Psychology Today

Originally published on 16 March 2024 on Psychology Today/The Art of Self-Improvement


By definition, our attention is the most precious good in the attention economy. Numerous forces are vying to capture and make a profit from it. But what exactly is attention, and why does it matter? In neuroscientific terms, attention refers to the cognitive process of focusing on specific aspects of information while disregarding others. When we pay attention, we allocate our cognitive resources to certain stimuli or tasks, whilst also filtering out irrelevant or less important information.


Attention is essential for cognitive processes such as perception, learning, memory, and decision-making. When we cannot direct and focus our attention, we may miss essential details, fail to understand and master processes, forget stuff, and make poorer decisions. We may also need longer to complete tasks and may be less productive and less creative.


Many believe that we are experiencing a general crisis of attention. Apparently, our average attention span is now shorter than that of a goldfish. And it is true that the sophisticated solicitations of the psychologically well-versed attention-marketeers have created an uneven playing field in which we all seem to lose. The fact that mindfulness has become the biggest personal development trend in the last two decades shows that a large number of us are worried about our capacity to be present. Concepts such as “deep work” are trending because so many of us feel that we have lost the capacity fully to focus on our tasks in a sustained manner.

But is our attention really as uniquely threatened as we think it is? I am not denying the challenges with which we are currently grappling. However, I want to offer some different perspectives on our by now very well-known narratives on attention. I hope they will allow you to see your struggles with your attention in a new light. Three myths in particular keep us from cognitive thriving:


Myth 1: The Crisis of Attention Is New and Technology-Related

It is true that new technologies, and the ways in which these technologies are weaponized to capture and exploit our attention, provide a unique and unprecedented challenge. However, it is also true that we are far from the only ones who have worried about our capacity to concentrate: Many of our ancestors, too, were profoundly concerned about their ability to focus on their tasks.


When the printing press was introduced in the sixteenth century, people felt that the rapid spread of print matter threatened traditional cognitive practices. They felt overwhelmed, because suddenly, there was too much to know. In the nineteenth century, people despaired about acceleration and constant cognitive overload, because there were suddenly far too many distracting stimuli in urban surroundings.


Consider also the case of medieval monks. We tend to think of monks as paragons of disciplined attentiveness, for it is their job to meditate on spiritual matters every day, all day long. But the idea that monks effortlessly pulled off heroic feats of concentration is a myth.


In The Wandering Mind (2023), Jamie Kreiner shows that early Christian monks battled with distraction on a daily basis: They would fall asleep while reading, think about food and sex, and become annoyed by their brethren’s yawning, giggling, sniffling, sneezing, and chatter. Distraction back then was seen as a weakness of the will and a marker of a lack of faith. Today, we still think of distraction in moral terms, as caused by a lack of commitment or self-discipline.


The strategies to counter distraction developed by medieval monks include strikingly modern-sounding meta-cognitive practices and second-order observations. They came up with visual imagery of minds gathering themselves, corralling their thoughts together like errant sheep. They practised being discerning about the nature of their thoughts, watching them carefully in order to eradicate the “demonic” ones before they could take root.


Concerns about our capacity to concentrate, then, are timeless. Even those who withdrew from worldly affairs in pre-modern times struggled to concentrate. Therefore, our struggles with attention are simply what makes us human.


Myth 2: Distraction Is the Opposite of Attention


This statement seems intuitively true. However, a more helpful way of thinking about distraction is to view it as simply a different form of attention. In The Power of Distraction: Diversion and Reverie from Montaigne to Proust (2023), Alessandra Aloisi writes: “What we usually call distraction is simply the fact of paying attention to the wrong thing.”


Consider, for example, “the power of flies”. These buzzing, winged insects have provided much cognitive commotion to our forebears. Because they disrupt desired flows of attention, flies are a popular leitmotif in early-modern writing. They pull us out of states of focused concentration and force us to think about something else instead. The modern equivalent to the attention-stealing fly is the blue Twitter-bird, or the relentless dance of notifications on our phone.


The point is that when we are distracted, we still focus on something – a fly instead of the scriptures, or an Instagram post instead of our Excel spreadsheets. Distraction, then, is attention, but it is attention to something unwelcome, something we were not planning to pay attention to in this particular moment.


It is of course not ideal when we find at the end of our day that we have once again lost hours checking social media or doom scrolling. And yet there can be merit in distraction. It is true that we often find solutions to sticky problems precisely when we choose to do something else and allow our conscious attention to detach from the problem. Insights often come to us in the shower, when we are folding laundry, or when we are moving in nature. It is rare that we have truly great, transformative ideas whilst we are sitting in front of our screens.


Myth 3: Attentional Quantity Matters More Than Attentional Quality


Most people would not agree with this statement. And yet our standard workdays clearly privilege attentional quantity over attentional quality. Our capacity to pay deep attention is limited. Concentrated attention takes cognitive energy. It is a form of work. But we often underestimate the cost, and disregard our need to take breaks between phases of attentional effort.


High-performing athletes, by contrast, are masters of alternating high effort with periods of restoration. They know that their bodies need to repair and build up muscle tissue to function at their highest capacity. Most knowledge and information workers do not treat their tools in the same way as athletes treat their bodies. Our minds, too, need proper breaks from concentrated effort. But most of us adhere to a “quantity over quality” regime, trying to work 8-hour days with as few breaks as possible. What is more, even when we do take break we do not use them wisely.


Estimates suggest that during those 8 hours, we spend 2-3 hours giving in to distraction. Or, if you will, we put our attention on non-work-related tasks. But we don’t feel good about it. Most of our desk- and screen-based displacement activities do not allow us to restore energy. They just drain our attentional capital in other, profoundly unsatisfying ways.


What if we took the time we waste online and chose to spend it differently? What if we allowed ourselves a proper lunch break, perhaps with friends, went for a long walk, read a book, played an instrument, or exercised? What if we decided to work only 5 hours and took the rest of the day to put our attention to recuperative, non-work-related matters?


Attention is an energy. In its focused form, it is limited. Like a strained muscle, it will get tired. We need to learn to use our attention more wisely, to allow it to rest and wander between periods of concentration, and to use our leisure time in more energy-replenishing ways. For even when we are distracted, we are still paying attention to something, so let’s make sure that it’s the right thing.


References

Aloisi, Alessandra. (2023) The Power of Distraction: Diversion and Reverie from Montaigne to Proust. Bloomsbury Academic.


Kreiner, Jamie. (2023) The Wandering Mind: What Medieval Monks Tell Us About Distraction. Liveright Publications.


Image: Niklas Hamann @Unsplash

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