A time for focus, a time for distraction

Social messaging can quick way for a traveller to find a friend’s recommendation for dinner in a strange city, for a salesperson to get a quick answer to a question when a customer’s on the phone. Realtime communication can enable rapid response, but a constant stream of chatter can be a time-consuming distraction.

In a Psychology Today article posted by Linda Stone and retweeted by Tim O’Reilly, a recent study by two MIT neurosciencentists shows that multitasking and distraction make people less efficient at getting tasks done.

In response to O’Reilly’s post, pioneering internet educator Howard Rheingold questioned the assumptions around the research and its interpretation: “Regarding neuroscience abt attention, distraction, multitasking – is efficiency highest & only goal? What about discovery? Pattern-finding?” If multitasking makes us inefficient, is efficiency always desirable?

In response to Rheingold’s question, I shared an article I read this weekend, contrasting the efficiency-oriented mindset of web developers with the focus of game developers. In a game context, the focus is on fun, story, character, not efficiency. There are also some salient differences differences between social media and traditional games: “Of course the game world thinks of games as built by game designers & the games we play in social media are often nomic [i.e. players make up the rules]. Also what efficiency misses is that in social media we’re often paying attention to people not tasks.” Rheingold took this one step further “Which leads me to wonder how much of the dreaded multitasking we do online is social discovery and relationship maintenance/repair.”

Efficiency isn’t necessarily the goal in social media. People are making social contact, developing patterns of social gestures that maintain relationships. When a colleague in Canada posts about tasty mango sushi, and a colleague in Portland, Oregon empathizes with turn toward fall weather favoring warm soup, we’re not just spewing pointless trivia, we’re sharing a personal connection that otherwise doesn’t happen separated by many hundreds of miles. Mark Drapeau makes this point with typical good-humored provocativeness: “I think that collaboration is the end result of leveraging social networks, which is in actuality what the social networking tools are for.”

Rheingold proposes, based on his own experience that multi-tasking may also help find meaning in diverse information: “I surf and task switch constantly, store and forward what I find, make notes, often find overarching patterns. Rheingold believes that students sometimes need to learn to be less focused: “Focus has its place, but many of my students who are adept at it need to unlearn dependence on it to zoom out to big picture questions.”

Jim Pivonka agrees that that multi-tasking is useful for young people learning, but brings evidence that it is otherwisecounterproductive for getting things done: “Other than the learning task, multitasking & high performance task execution suspected pretty much mutually exclusive.

In addition to learning, Rheingold posits art as an activity that is valuable, but not about efficiency. “To me, making art is an activity that is valuable for it’s own sake, not for the artifact or its utility, so efficiency is orthogonal… To paraphrase Kierkegaard, for me, making art “is a reality to be experienced, not a problem to be solved,” or artifact 2 B displayed.. dl willson suggests that art may be efficient in a different way, “@hrheingold I would argue that art is efficient…because art is a spark. “Art” is not the object but the spark.”

To be honest, I am not sure that I am correctly representing the dialog between Rheingold and Willson; they may be able to correct my mis-reading. Regardless of the respective understandings of art, it is clear that whichever definition would not meet the tests of the neuroscientists for task-based efficiency!!

Several others suggest alternative models for focus. Brad Ovnell cites a different type of focus needed in Karate: “Loved sparring in karate b/c it developed ability to focus & look wide at once.” Gregory McNish suggests that perhaps focus should have a rhythm, in and out, like breathing.

Jonathan Pratt, an educator with neuroscience background, suggests that the neuroscience research is looking at task efficiency since that is easy to research: “I think it’s a matter of tackling the easier/more quantifiable questions first…brain’s very complex & neuro’s a young field.”

For Rheingold, the hyper-focus on efficiency calls to mind his earlier reading of work by Jacques Ellul, who articulated in the 1950s a grim vision of society being taken over by “technique” – technologies and highly structured activities that eat away at human autonomy and community.

A summary of the conversation: there are goals and values for multi-tasking and social media, other than task-based efficiency. Social gestures, learning, pattern-finding, art – these are all very different from the task completion that is shown to be hampered by multi-tasking. Findings about the impact of multi-tasking on task completion is useful but limited. Hopefully future research will broaden focus to examine the relationship between the experiences of multi-tasking and ambient sociality and other dimensions of life.

25 thoughts on “A time for focus, a time for distraction”

  1. Adina,

    Good stuff. I’m with you on the critique of efficiency, as were a number of folks around the time the study was published. Multi-tasking and task-switching involve attention and awareness in ways not really vetted by the study. While many face to face activities are serial in nature and involving being “in time” with others for an episode of focused interaction, I don’t think we know enough about the learning processes in which multi-lateral and multi-modal mediated experiences play a role in getting “information.”

    But in a communication context, or where social media are used for extended and distribtued social contact and communication, there’s a claim on attention that clearly can be distracting. This often comes up as “information overload” and is attributed often to realtime streams. Again, we don’t know enough about how the stream demands our attention in a distractive (it’s always on — whether content is relevant/interesting or not) sense or in an attentive sense. I’m not convinced we even make a clear distinction between paying attention and being distracted by the stream.

    Furthermore, the realtime stream is integrated by a user in his/her own time — it’s not discontinuous when experienced. Five minutes on twitter is five minutes — all those separate messages are read in one stretch of time. (Likely it’s the time away from a tool that is distracting — for it’s then that many people seem to be distracted by what they’re not directing attention to but which they are in fact thinking about).

    I think that when you go from viewing the stream as message or text to action system instead, you get a better sense of where our understanding breaks down and needs improvement. Here, I think it’s the de-coupling of action from immediacy and context, and from consequences/effects, that we become distracted and possibly inefficient. Human interaction is incredibly fast, but when mediated is subjected to gaps. I suspect that we’re inclined to closure of the gaps and to ongoing communication (or not) — and that it’s the waiting (the anticipation and expectation of responses) that is most distracting. For those folks who are less conversational in social media, and who use it more as a personal broadcast tool, unresolved communication would be presumably less a distraction than perhaps signs of success: views, new followers, subscribers, comments etc.


  2. Brilliant post, Adina! I blogged about it in my blog for my Stanford class, and am directing my students’ attention to it: “for those who think multitasking is always bad and Twitter is always shallow.”

  3. Except as relates to evolutionary biology, my knowledge of the brain comes from 71 years of dealing with the recalcitrance of my own; likely as much, and learned in roughly the same way, as Sisyphus knows of geology.

    The point of my referral to Maurizio Corbetta’s research on post learning “spontaneous” brain activity [ http://esciencenews.com/articles/2009/10/09/scans.show.learning.sculpts.brains.connections ] was my inference that the establishment of new links among previously unlinked parts of the brain is a pervasive meta consequence of new learning, and that this function likely has significant implications for the future brain function of the individual – whether that is characterized as efficiency or capacity.

    Multi-tasking, of a kind, was used by the researchers to establish the conditions they studied. “Two sets of brain areas were particularly active during the task: part of the visual cortex that corresponded to the portion of the visual field where subjects were looking for the “T”, and areas in the dorsal part of the brain involved in directing attention to the location on the screen.”

    My inference is that many kinds of multi-tasking will have such effects, and that these effects will prove to be important features of (mammalian?) brain development generally. I can imagine that features of play behavior, and other early learning behavior in animals have evolved to encourage the development of these connections.

    In this context, we could posit that multi-tasking might have positive effects on brain development, increasing the number of inteconnects between brain regions having different funcitons, and that these effects might be particularily strong in young, “designed for learning” brains. Ideally, following Northrop, a potentially differentiable continuum of weak interconnects would be selectively reinforced, ordered, and integrated into a structure designed for processing of information from the presented environment and active engagement with that environment.

    This could be seen as standing the pop gut reaction to the effects of multi-tasking on the young brain on its head, but it’s early to come to that conclusion.

    Still, taking early results like these and results on attention and multi-tasking together, there may be reason to explore the possibility of inherent conflict between goals for focused, attention dependant task accomplishment which is required over most of our adult lives and long term maintenance of a varied, flexible and adaptive complex of the kinds of interconnections established in the young, learning brain.

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