Attention Must Be Paid

A new book considers how the brain responds to information overload. Scott McLemee thinks it's more than a distraction.

November 26, 2008

This morning I learned -- among other things -- that I have been given a Ph.D.

Actually looking at the e-mail would no doubt have informed me that it was a matter of paying a modest fee to some enterprising soul, probably in the Cayman Islands. Instead, I deleted this message on the basis of the subject line alone, along with a dozen other such communications. Meanwhile, my eyeballs were unwittingly drawn to a video loop of a woman screaming in terror – horrified at high credit card interest rates, which she could reduce via a company that advertises with my e-mail provider.

Then my cell phone emitted a short burst of music, announcing that someone had just left a text message.

All par for the course, of course. (At least I wasn’t driving.) The demands on our attention have now become a matter for professional expertise: An organization for specialists, the Information Overload Research Group, was formally incorporated as a nonprofit this summer and held its first conference in August. A substantial technical literature on interruption now exists. And one recent consideration of the world economic crisis suggests it has been exacerbated by all the data now sloshing around the globe: “We have far too much information today and that impedes our decision-making abilities and throttles our ability to resolve crises.”

The weak link in the information age seems to be our human hard-wiring. So one gathers from The Overflowing Brain: Information Overload and the Limits of Working Memory (Oxford University Press) by Torkel Klingberg, who is a professor of developmental cognitive neuroscience at the Stockholm Brain Institute. A review of recent research on how attention and memory actually function within our gray matter, it is a work of scientific popularization rather than a handbook on how to minimize the cognitive drain of distraction.

But there may be some advantage to knowing how the systems in our heads actually operate – and it is Klingberg’s contention that, in spite of everything, those systems may actually benefit from the sometimes excessive demands our environments now place on our capacity to process the data flux. The human brain itself has not changed much in either anatomy or volume over the past 40,000 years. So at one level it seems natural that we should experience a cognitive bottleneck in handling the masses of information being hurled at us daily.

To simplify Klingberg’s already pared-down analysis, we can distinguish between two kinds of attention. One is controlled attention: the directed effort to apply one’s concentration to a particular task. The other is stimulus-driven attention, which is an involuntary response to something happening in the environment. (You can tune out the conversations going on around you in a restaurant. But if a waiter drops a tray full of dishes, it is going to impose itself on your awareness.)

But it’s not as if these forms of attention are – as it may seem – different manifestations of the same state of consciousness: researchers have found from tests that the controlled and stimulus-driven attention “seem fairly independent of one another,” says Klingberg, which may mean “that there are different parts of the brain, or different brain processes” involved in them.

Likewise, there is a distinction between the kind of memory that allows you to recall an event from five years ago and a set of information connected with a problem you are trying to solve. Your recollections of yesteryear are part of long-term memory, which can be mysteriously capacious. By contrast, there are definite limitations on how much task-oriented data can be held in your “working memory.” (Evidently there are grounds for debate among researchers over whether or not this is the same as “short-term memory,” but we’ll just stick to Klingberg’s preferred usage.)

As with the forms of attention, the distinction between long-term and working memory corresponds to different processes within the brain, occurring within different parts of its geography. But there is evidence that (as you might expect) working memory and controlled attention are closely related. People who score lower on tests for the ability to retain information in their working memory tend to have more difficulty in focusing attention on a complex task. “It might not come as too much of a surprise,” says Klingberg, “to find that working memory capacity correlates highly with reading comprehension.”

Klingberg reports that a two-year study in his lab showed that it was possible to increase working-memory capacity: “children who had done a certain type of computerized memory task, such as remembering positions in a four-by-four grid and clicking a mouse button, improved at other, noncomputerized types of working memory too.... We had shown that the systems are not static and that the limits of working memory capacity can be stretched.”

Further study suggested that this improvement also corresponded to increased problem-solving skills. Our brains may still have many of the same fundamental limitations as the Cro-Magnon model, but there is also some degree of plasticity in how we can use and develop it.

Which brings us to Klingberg’s most surprising and even counterintuitive suggestion. Multitasking often threatens to overload the working memory. But at the same time, it’s clear that we can actually manage it, at least to some degree – reading a newspaper while walking on a treadmill, for example, and occasionally glancing up at the TV screen to see what’s breaking on CNN.

“There is, fortunately, no research suggesting that exposure to mentally more demanding or challenging situations impairs our powers of concentration,” writes Klingberg. “Indeed, there is much that points to the contrary: it is in situations that push the boundaries of our abilities that we train our brains the most.”

But even if our basic ability to process information is increasing, a growing “discrepancy between demand and capacity” may account for the common sense of losing focus.

"You are very possibly 10 percent better at talking on the phone while erasing spam today than you were three years ago. On the other hand, the number of e-mails you receive per day has probably shot up about 200 percent. There is, therefore, no contradiction between the feeling that your abilities are inadequate and the improvement of those abilities.”

Well, that is some comfort – if not much. It’s been said that the scarcest resource in an information society is not information but attention. Klingberg’s book, interesting as it is, does not leave the reader with any way around that. In any case, a great deal of the “information” (such as my Ph.D. offer this morning) turns out to be noise, rather than anything meaningful. It’s necessary to pay just enough attention to decide not to pay any more attention – a kind of catch-22.

Which is why it sometimes feels like one’s brain is being nibbled by carnivorous gnats. It would be good if Dr. Klingberg and his colleagues would apply themselves to finding a salve. Or better yet, a repellent.


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