Paying attention isn't a simple act of self-discipline, but a cognitive ability with deep neurobiological roots — and this complex faculty might be woefully undermined by how we're living.Our high-speed, overloaded, split-focus and even cybercentric society affects our attention. The 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.
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.
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. When your thread of thought is lost frequently it's hard to go deeply into problem-solving, into relating, into thinking. These are the problems of attention that had worsen in our new world. Gadgets and technologies gave us extraordinary opportunities, like the potential to connect and to learn. But they can also be detrminental and contribute to undermine our power of attention.
We could, if we chose, use our technologies to liberate us from distractions and task-switching, and use them to maximize our ability to reduce stress, concentrate, pay attention, and use our creative skills. Put the phone on Do not Ddsturb, let voicemail take messages, reply to your calls and email in batches a couple of times a day rather than as soon as it comes in.