Continual Partial Attention

Two observations, from different perspectives. One from Linda Stone, who used to work at Apple and who now writes on the effect of the internet and other technologies on our overall wellbeing. The other from Thomas Merton, the Catholic monk, reflecting on the effect of noise. Written over 40 years apart, with different epistemologies, they come to similar conclusions.

We pay continuous partial attention in an effort NOT TO MISS ANYTHING. It is an always-on, anywhere, anytime, any place behavior that involves an artificial sense of constant crisis. We are always in high alert when we pay continuous partial attention. This artificial sense of constant crisis is more typical of continuous partial attention than it is of multi-tasking. 

Linda Stone, Writer and Consultant, 2009

Now let us frankly face the fact that our culture is one which is geared in many ways to help us evade any need to face this inner, silent self. We live in a state of constant semiattention to the sound of voices, music, traffic, or the generalized noise of what goes on around us all the time. This keeps us immersed in a flood of racket and words, a diffuse medium in which our consciousness is half diluted: we are not quite ‘thinking,’ not entirely responding, but we are more or less there. We are not fully present and not entirely absent; not fully withdrawn, yet not completely available. It cannot be said that we are really participating in anything and we may, in fact, be half conscious of our alienation and resentment. Yet we derive a certain comfort from the vague sense that we are ‘part of’ something – although we are not quite able to define what that something is – and probably wouldn’t want to define it even if we could. We just float along in the general noise. Resigned and indifferent, we share semiconsciously in the mindless mind of Muzak and radio commercials which passes for ‘reality.’

Thomas Merton, Cistercian Monk, 1915 – 1968

3 thoughts on “Continual Partial Attention

  1. Here is a post on multitasking I recently ran across. We seem to be taught multitasking in today’s world.

    Another experiment, by psychologist David E. Meyer of the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor quantified just how much time we can lose when we shuttle among tasks.  The researchers asked test participants to write a report and check their e-mail at the same time.
    Those individuals who constantly jumped back and forth between the tasks took about one and a half times as long to finish as those who completed one job before turning to another.
    Each switchover from one task to the next meant rethinking and thus involved additional neuronal resources. In effect, the brain needs time to shut off the rules for one task and to turn on the rules for another. “Multitasking saves time only when it is a matter of relaxed, routine tasks,” Meyer says.
    It also takes the brain longer to change gears when switching back to an interrupted task rapidly, as many multitaskers do, rather than waiting longer before switching back.
    A fall 2002 study from the National Institute of Mental Health found that the brain has to overcome “inhibitions” it imposed on itself to stop doing the original task in the first place. (Scientific American Mind 2004)

    1. Thanks Marty,

      That’s a really interesting study, and not surprising. It affects our thinking and our emotions – I think Linda Stone’s observation that a lot of technology seems to keep us on alert for a constant crisis is very true. It will be interesting to see what all this fragmentation does to our sense of contentment.

      1. That is why you teach and use mindfulness to repair and focus our mind again. With this crazyy connected world some careers teach this anti-mindfulness technique. Surpirising how our productivity falters without focus.

        I have found the mind to change, it likes a specific, concrete model or concept to perform at its best.

        An example is how some great performers and athletes reach the state of flow.

        It is having practice and mastered something, hitting a baseball, playing a concert piano, then we can show up, empty.

        If I was at the plate hitting a baseball, if any thought is present, I lose some of my ability. The mind without thought, empty, is faster, quicker and the mind can accomplish so much more, unburdened by thought, doubt, worry or fear.

        interesting the new mind mechanisms available for us to see and use.

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