Sunday, February 08, 2009

Cultural ADD

GKC wrote, "It is the paradox of history that each generation is converted by the saint who contradicts it most." If this is true, should we be on the lookout for an Asian Christian who is able to contemplate Christ for more than three minutes?

(If you find the article below, stimulating, see also Formation in an Electronic Age )

Digital Overload is Frying our Brains

(via Brad) Wired talks with
Maggie Jackson

Distracted: The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age, Jackson explores the effects of "our high-speed, overloaded, split-focus and even cybercentric society" on attention. It's not a pretty picture: a never-ending stream of phone calls, e-mails, instant messages, text messages and tweets is part of an institutionalized culture of interruption, and makes it hard to concentrate and think creatively... Is there an actual scientific basis of attention?

Maggie Jackson: In the last 30 or 40 years, scientists have made inroads into understanding its underlying mechanisms and physiology. Attention is now considered an organ system. It has its own circuitry in the brain, and there are specialized networks carrying out its different forms. Each is very specific and can be traced through neuroimaging and even some genetic research.

While there is still debate among attention scientists, most now conclude that there are three types of attention. The first is orienting — the flashlight of your mind. In the case of visual attention, it involves parts of the brain including the parietal lobe, a brain area related to sensory processing. To orient to new stimuli, two parts of the parietal lobe work with brain sections related to frontal eye fields. This is what develops in an infants' brain, allowing them to focus on something new in their environment.

The second type of attention spans the spectrum of response states, from sleepiness to complete alertness. The third type is executive attention: planning, judgment, resolving conflicting information. The heart of this is the anterior cingulate — an ancient, tiny part of the brain that is now at the heart of our higher-order skills. It's executive attention that lets us move us beyond our impulsive selves, to plan for the future and understand abstraction.

We are programmed to be interrupted. We get an adrenalin jolt when orienting to new stimuli: Our body actually rewards us for paying attention to the new. So in this very fast-paced world, it's easy and tempting to always react to the new thing. But when we live in a reactive way, we minimize our capacity to pursue goals. What does it mean to be distracted?

Jackson: Literally, it means to be pulled away to something secondary. There's also an a interesting, archaic definition that fell out of favor in the 18th century: being pulled to pieces, being scattered. I think that's a lovely term.

Our society right now is filled with lovely distractions — we have so much portable escapism and mediated fantasy — but that's just one issue. The other is interruption — multitasking, the fragmentation of thought and time. We're living in highly interrupted ways. Studies show that information workers now switch tasks an average of every three minutes throughout the day. Of course that's what we have to do to live in this complicated world. How do these interruptions affect us?

Jackson: This degree of interruption is correlated with stress and frustration and lowered creativity. That makes sense.
When you're scattered and diffuse, you're less creative. When your times of reflection are always punctured, it's hard to go deeply into problem-solving, into relating, into thinking.

These are the problems of attention in our new world. Gadgets and technologies give us extraordinary opportunities, the potential to connect and to learn. At the same time, we've created a culture, and are making choices, that undermine our powers of attention. Has a direct link been measured between interruptions and neurophysiology?

Jackson: Interruptions are correlated with stress, and a cascade of stress hormones accompany that state of being. Stress, frustration and lowered creativity are pretty toxic. And there are studies showing how the environment shapes brain development in kids.

But I can't say if attention fragmentation really rewires our brains. When you sit at a desk for six hours multitasking like a maniac, are you actually rewiring parts of your attention networks? That's difficult to say right now. Is establishing that link the next scientific step?

Jackson: It's one priority for future research. Right now, the field of attention science is especially concerned with attention development in children. The networks develop at different paces. Orienting is largely in place by kindergarten. The executive network is largely in place by age 8, but it develops until the mid-20s. Understanding the sweet spots for helping kids develop attention is where the science is at. So adults are out of luck?

Jackson: We do know that people's attention networks can be trained, though we're not sure how long-lasting the gains are. There are exercises and computer games designed to strengthen attention, sometimes by boosting short-term memory.

The only sort training going on now in the office world is meditation-based, and that's being used more for stress rather than to boost attention, although it does do that. In terms of mainstream research, there's nothing I'm aware of that's being done to help the average adult, though there's tremendous interest in what's possible.

But there are ways to cut back on the multitasking and interruptions, shaping your own environment and work style so that you better use your attentional networks. If you have a difficult problem or a conundrum to solve, you need to think about where you work best. Right now, people hope they'll be able to think or create or problem-solve in the midst of a noisy, cluttered environment. Quiet is a starting point.

The other important thing is to discuss interruption as an environmental question and collective social issue. In our country, stillness and reflection are not especially valued in the workplace. The image of success is the frenetic multitasker who doesn't have time and is constantly interrupted. By striving towards this model of inattention, we're doing ourselves a tremendous injustice. The subtitle of your book predicts a "coming dark age." Do you really believe this?

Jackson: Dark ages are times of forgetting, when the advancements of the past are underutilized. If we forget how to use our powers of deep focus, we'll depend more on black-and-white thinking, on surface ideas, on surface relationships. That breeds a tremendous potential for tyranny and misunderstanding. The possibility of an attention-deficient future society is very sobering.


Arturo Rivero said...

Being a Christian man who was myself diagnosed with ADD approximately a decade and a half ago, and who is likewise as uneasy with the encroaching tide of innunerable 'media additives' designed to 'bring us together' more intimately, 'realistically', and quickly, I too fear just what is implied within this blog entry.

Also, having a bit of ministry experience in jail, I likewise shudder at the changing tide that is manifest in and of personalities entering into the halls of incarceration today, the likes of which are not typically recignized by older more 'seasoned' or 'respectable' felons. In other words, today's criminals are of a different breed - as noted by older convicts.

Anyhow, this has been an interesting read that likewise reminded me of a little book I read
quite some time ago. In it, Neil Postman, revealed how years ago orators once spoke for hours on end to which their audiences were held in rapt attention - which was for them a normal response. Not so today.
What follows is a small quote I found online at <>. I think it fits quite nicely dovetailing much of what was revealed herein. Blessings-Titus 2:11-14

“What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy. As Huxley remarked in Brave New World Revisited, the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny "failed to take into account man's almost infinite appetite for distractions." In 1984, Orwell added, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell feared that what we fear will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we desire will ruin us.”
― Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business

Beth B said...

Thanks for this great quote, Arturo!