In Search of Flow: An Emerging Culture of Attention

The release of the PNAS study, “Cognitive control in media multitaskers”, sparked the latest round of debate about whether we are losing ground in a landscape of distractions or entering into a renaissance of attention.  The study by Stanford researchers Eyal Ophir, Clifford Nass, and Anthony Wagner, reports that in various standard psychological tests for cognitive control (attention and working memory) light media multitaskers performed better than heavy media multitaskers.  Note that this study measured performance in a controlled lab context and not in the real world.  (Read the article here for the full description of conditions and results)  Nevertheless, this kicked off another round in what Stowe Boyd calls “the war on flow.”

The discussion seems to go something like this. On one side are the proponents of attentional poverty.  They argue that the emerging digital media landscape of Twitter, Facebook, email, iPhones and Blackberries and the meteoric growth of information are increasing the distractions in our environment, depleting our attention, and driving us toward a surface understanding –gaining information but losing wisdom.   The benefits of mutlitasking are a myth. (Christine Rosen ).

On the other side are the proponents of creative abundance.  This argument describes a new landscape of connection and creativity.  It argues for the benefits of distraction and overstimulation (Sam Anderson “In defense of Distraction” ).  The new media world is indeed a world of distractions.  It is nonlinear, less “efficiency” oriented and it offers possibilities for greater creativity, serendipity, and novelty.  Could Einstein have come up with his theory of relativity as a patent clerk if he maintained total focus on the job and his mind didn’t wander? Or if his job interrupted him so much he couldn’t focus on relativity? This position argues for the opportunities from “flow” and new approaches for greater understanding and knowledge creation (Stowe Boyd).

Stowe Boyd offers this perspective on his experience with digital media flow:

Perhaps what we are doing has nothing to do with efficiency. I don’t operate the way I do with the principal goal of speeding things up. My motivations are much more complex and diffused. I don’t perceive what I am doing as multitasking, really. I am not trying to speed up how quickly I shift from one thing to another. Instead, I am involved in a stream of activities, in which other people figure prominently, either synchronously through direct discussion (a la Twitter or IM) or indirectly, through their writings and my responses.

And further on he adds:

If you judge a juggler by how many times the balls hit the floor and contrast that with someone throwing and catching one ball at a time, the juggler will always lose. But the juggler is doing something different. You could argue that doing it that way makes no sense, that throwing one ball at a time is more efficient, leads to less sleepless nights, and doesn’t confuse the mind. But it isn’t juggling.

I was happy to read Boyd’s post because he brought the discussion back to the big issues that the Stanford study raises – there are distinct modes of cognition and we need to learn more about how they are developed, inhibited, and what they mean for us in terms of learning, work, relationships, and our environments.   Perhaps these distinct cognitive modes realize different kinds of cognitive gains in different contexts.  Achieving low efficiencies in single task completion may be offset by high efficiencies in other kinds of tasks.  There may be multiple kinds of cognitive goals and realizing them may require a combination of information processing modes or a selection of modes based on goals and context.

So what are our principal goals?  To what ends do we want to direct our attention, as individuals and as a society?   Maggie Jackson orients her discussion of distraction and attention in this bigger context.   She is a healthy skeptic who acknowledges the power of our technology and stresses the importance of deep reflection on who and what we are becoming when we use it.

In Distracted: The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age,  published in 2008, she exposes the centrality of attention to our humanity – our sense of the past and our collective ability to reflect deeply and imagine the future.  She pushes the reader to reflect on how digital media may be affecting us and what kinds of values, and choices, they reflect. While the title may suggest that this book fits squarely in the “war on flow” camp, it really doesn’t.  She argues that we risk eroding our capacity for deep reflection, intimacy, and the potential to sculpt our future if we do not critically examine the impacts of our technologically enabled lives on attention.  She fears that we may be over valuing surface understanding and speed for depth and reflection.

I’m not angling for a return to some sort of pastoral, un-mechanized Eden in order to halt the erosion of attention.  We cannot blame technology on society’s ills.  Nor can we fall in to the opposite and increasingly commonplace trap of blindly trusting that our new tools will automatically usher us into a glorious new age.  The tools we are wholeheartedly embracing today are inherently powerful, and we ignore that truth at our peril. You can use a stick for digging potatoes or stabbing your neighbor, so how you use a stick is important, but equally important is the fact that a stick is not a wheel.  … This is the messy soup that makes up our relation to technology, and explains why technology plays a starring but ultimately subordinate role if this book.  Technology is a key to understanding our world, but it is not the full story.  Instead we must ask: how do we want to define progress?  We are adapting to a new world, but in doing so are we redefining “smart” to mostly mean twitch speed, multitasking, and bullet points?  Are we similarly redefining intimacy and trust?

However she also suggests that we may be on the edge of an attentional renaissance, fueled by our growing understanding about the science of attention (citing research by Michael Posner, David Meyer, and others).

As humans, we are formed to pay attention.  Without it, we simply would not survive.  Just as our circulatory or respiratory systems are made up of multiple parts, so attention encompasses three “networks” related to different aspects of awareness, focus, and planning.  In a nutshell, “alerting” makes us sensitive to incoming stimuli, while the “orienting” network helps us select information from among the millions of sensations we receive from the world, voluntarily or in reaction to our surroundings. A baby’s first job is to hone these skills, which are akin to “awareness” and “focus”, respectively.  In a class of its own, however, is the executive network, the system of attention responsible for complex cognition and emotional operations and especially for resolving conflicts between areas of the brain.  All three networks are crucial and often work together, and without strong skills of attention, we are buffeted by the world and hindered in our capacity to grow and even to enjoy life.

Her book takes us through each of these attentional capacities and discusses how they respond to and are affected by our current world of high mobility, fragmented time and virtual spaces. Her narrative demonstrates the broad extent of the attentional network and its impact on our wellbeing (stress, joy, happiness), its role in conditions such as autism, ADHD, and its significance to human experience.  From a new understanding of the mechanisms of attention, we may develop a language and culture of attention that can become a platform for nurturing it more broadly in our easily distractable lives.

People who focus well report feeling less fear, frustration, and sadness day to day, partly because they can literally deploy their attention away from the negatives in life.  In contrast, attentional problems are one of the main impediments to attaining “flow”, the deep sense of contentment that people find when they are stretching themselves to meet a challenge.

What I appreciate about Distracted is the shift toward thinking about the ways we can value and enable attention given the realities of the modern technological world.  Rather than advocating a complete elimination of technology and sources of distraction and fragmentation, the book concludes with a chapter entitled “The Gift of Attention – A Renaissance at Hand.”   In this chapter, Jackson shares her visit to the Shambala Mountain Center in Colorado where she observed a study in progress on the impacts of meditation on attentional skills and on social and emotional health, led by UC Davis neuroscientist Clifford Saron.  Building off of new understandings of neuroplasticity, the study hopes to shed light on the possibilities for training the brain and reshaping the mind.  She discusses other breakthrough experiments, such as the work of neuroscientist Amishi Jha,  that shows the positive impacts of mindful breathing on spatial orienting, providing what Jha calls a “cognitive rocket booster.”

The merging of our understandings of art, neuroscience, and meditation is revealing that we have greater capacities than we thought to relate to the world deeply and intensely. Perhaps we can rediscover, or reinvent, flow in this new land of distraction.  Taking sides for or against technology won’t help.  Engaging in purposeful reflection on who we are becoming with our digital media and in deep examination of our motivations and goals as a society will help us hone those capacities.