Memory, Concentration, and Distraction

From MedicalNewsToday:

Principal investigator Edward K. Vogel, a UO professor of psychology, compares working memory to a computer’s random-access memory (RAM) rather than the hard drive’s size — the higher the RAM, the better processing abilities. With more RAM, he said, students were better able to ignore distractions

people who hold their focus more intensely tend to have higher fluid intelligence; they score higher on achievement tests, do better in math and learn second languages easier than peers who are captured by interruptions. Vogel currently is working with other UO researchers to explore if the easily distracted indeed have a positive side, such as in artistic creativity and imagination.

“Our attention is the continual interplay between what our goals are and what the environment is trying to dictate to us,” Vogel said. “Often, to be able to complete complex and important goal-directed behavior, we need to be able to ignore salient but irrelevant things, such as advertisements flashing around an article you are trying to read on a computer screen. We found that some people are really good at overriding attention capture, and other people have a difficult time unhooking from it and are really susceptible to irrelevant stimuli.”

Vogel theorizes that people who are good at staying on focus have a good gatekeeper, much like a bouncer or ticket-taker hired to allow only approved people into a nightclub or concert. Understanding how to improve the gatekeeper component, he said, could lead to therapies that help easily distracted people better process what information is allowed in initially, rather than attempting to teach people how to force more information into their memory banks.

I wonder what findings like these mean for the changing nature of the brain in the age of distraction we’re entering wherein the proliferation of media (and increasingly shorter-form media) has our minds bouncing around more frequently.  Will this increase our tendency to be distracted and thereby weaken our intelligence or will the intelligent still exercise this excellent ability to screen out irrelevant information even as they are sifting a greater number of sources at a time and switching sources more quickly.  In other words, is the problem with distraction that we do not stick with longer format material because we’re easily bored or is it rather that regardless of whether we’re engaging one long format source  or 20 shorter format sources that what really matters is our skill at concentrating and sifting at each of those 20 stops we make in the same time that we would have spent on one long-form piece?

It seems to me that there is something intrinsically and uniquely good lost if we cannot handle long-form reading or viewing because we are habituated to expect constant variety when engaging media.  I think it’s quite possible to get comparable quality of information and ideas from multiple shorter formats which can broaden one’s perspective.  And as our minds continue to adapt to constant streams of information we might have the ability to improve our “gatekeepers” through forcing them to train on a daily basis in the art of sifting information.  Our brains can likely restructure themselves to process more streams of information faster.

And then the question becomes, can we reformat how the most important information arrives to us so that it fits with our minds’ expectations for constant flow of smaller bits of information from a variety of sources?  Can philosophical arguments that in the past may have been developed over several hundred page tomes be offered in daily interactive chunks instead if people decreasingly have the brains for reading hundreds of pages at a time.

While the loss of that long-form reading ability might mean the loss of an intrinsically excellent skill, can all the concrete benefits of those longer form books be achieved through shorter formats anyway?  Dickens wrote his novels in serial form, analytic philosophy has largely shifted its concentration from monographs to articles, what’s to stop the blog from being the regular medium for fiction and philosophy in the future?  As long as our minds become better at sifting and assimilating the daily variety of input sources, why not get more ideas and information but in smaller bites?  Is anything lost except a particular admirable skill?

Sam Anderson is an optimist that these changes in our brains are indeed for the best.

Your Thoughts?

About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • Evangelos

    I wouldn’t necessarily say this is a bad or good thing; it’s an environmental change that humans will deal with through their uncanny ability to adapt. In some respects it will be beneficial, in others it will be detrimental, and you’ve touched on these. The invention of writing caused a similar change in brain emphasis from long term memory to short term. I’m not particularly worried. On the other hand, an increased emphasis on the virtue of concentration practically demands that some begin using drugs such as Adderall and Ritalin to keep up or improve their performance. Fascinating stuff.

    This reminds me of an excellent article New York magazine ran about 3 months ago called the benefits of distraction: http://nymag.com/news/features/56793/


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