With all the talk about Continuous Partial Attention, Attention Deficit Disorder, and the hectic pace of modern life, I wanted to put forward a related but slightly different personal observation.
Resource-limited models of attention have been around for decades. I’ve completely lost touch with the literature, and do not mean to gloss over all the profound work, but here’s a handy quote from Don Norman, who summarises things nicely in a 2005 interview about car automation:
The old model of attentional resources was CPU cycles – if I am idling, I am only using a small percentage of cycles and the rest is available any time I need it. It’s a model I helped develop in the 1970s. There is some evidence though that this is not appropriate. Maybe a better model would not be a fixed CPU but a mesh computer, where multiple CPUs are scattered around in a community. If I think [the current task] could be an easy job I get just enough CPUs to do the job. Now if I suddenly need more, I’m screwed. In the first model, I was not using the remaining capacity but it was available for me. But in the second model my attentive resources diminish and when I suddenly need them, they are not there. Some researchers in England are applying this model of “underload” to driving, which I find very intriguing.
Subjectively, the experience of attention is not only about the ebb and flow of resources, however: for me, it is about the granularity of activities of interest. Another way of stating this is that it concerns the relative size of the visible horizon. As an example, it has long been clear to me that when someone I know has been recovering from some illness (say, a stroke), the painstakingly slow recovery is accompanied by a shift in the granularity of activities of interest: so instead of “running a marathon” or “cycling to work” (old activities of interest), the activity of merit is now “getting across the room”. And the relatives who observe this activity are, in my experience, genuinely engaged with it — i.e. this is not some patronising stance, but rather a true shift in the granularity of focus, so that the new goal really does “fill the horizon”, and becomes a very large and prized ambition, within whose scope many smaller sub-goals are attended to with clarity and conviction. When I broke my jaw some years ago, the goal became “eating”, and that took many weeks.
Another great example of this comes from a Philip Marlowe line in the film “Murder, My Sweet” (from Raymond Chandler’s novel Farewell, My Lovely). Marlowe, in a helpless drug-induced mental haze, can barely move:
Okay, Marlowe, I said to myself, you’re a tough guy.
You’ve been sapped twice, choked, beaten silly with a gun…
shot in the arm until you’re as crazy as a couple of waltzing mice.
Now let’s see you do something really tough…
like putting your pants on.
This new, tough, goal is genuine.. precisely because it is now so hard: it is the protagonist’s personal Mt. Everest at that moment in time. Not much else matters, and achieving the goal will be a matter of immense satisfaction.
In a less dramatic context, one finds when leapfrogging around the blogosphere that there are items that suddenly grab one’s attention. From that moment onwards, it is possible to ‘drill down’ into the minutiae of [pick any topic], and get drawn into a whole new world. If it gets that absorbing, one’s entire focus shifts… a life-long interest in, say, cognitive models of human perception becomes superseded by, say, the reliability of assumptions of variable-independence in certain statistical tests. New authorities are discovered, new literature, new subtleties, new paradigms, new disciplines, and one can drill down deeply into what had previously been just a side problem (like Marlowe getting dressed) yet is now the Top Goal.
Shifting interests (by individuals and ‘the media’) in top news stories have the same characteristic. Trapped miners can occupy headlines for many consecutive days, not only because of the ‘human interest angle’, but also because a new horizon (safe rescue) has been established. ‘Passion fatigue’ is, unfortunately, another example of what can happen when our minds crave different horizons. Horizons shift, as do interests.
You could argue that the ability to maintain steady focus is what separates deep thinkers from mere dilettantes. The counter-argument is that serendipitous pathways and disruptive states are only discovered by those who relax such a fixed ‘tunnel vision’ of focus. There’s no need for an ‘either-or’ distinction: one can actually have it both ways.
There is a fractal-like quality to this aspect of attention: the effects of scarce or competing attentional resources and ‘horizon effects’ (i.e. hard to see just beyond the horizon or current ‘big goal’) remain the same, no matter how deep or fine-grained the target of inspection. Getting dressed for Marlowe, climbing Mt. Everest for others: just as hard, just as focussed, just as dangerous.
In the blogosphere, for readers and writers alike, it is fantastic that we can find ‘islands of expertise or interest’ to latch onto, and they in turn will be magnets for stories of interest from a particular attentional perspective. When the perspective changes, new islands can be found. Many others have said things like this before, so I won’t even attempt to link or quote — I just felt like putting the above reflection in my own words. Thanks for listening.
Technorati Tags: attention, ADD, CPA, partial, fractal, focus