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In Defense of Distraction


One of the projects Gallagher worked on during her recovery (she is now cancer free) was Rapt, which is both a survey of recent attention research and a testimonial to the power of top-down focus. The ability to positively wield your attention comes off, in the book, as something of a panacea; Gallagher describes it as “the sine qua non of the quality of life and the key to improving virtually every aspect of your experience.” It is, in other words, the Holy Grail of self-help: the key to relationships and parenting and mood disorders and weight problems. (You can apparently lose seven pounds in a year through the sheer force of paying attention to your food.)

“You can’t be happy all the time,” Gallagher tells me, “but you can pretty much focus all the time. That’s about as good as it gets.”

The most promising solution to our attention problem, in Gallagher’s mind, is also the most ancient: meditation. Neuroscientists have become obsessed, in recent years, with Buddhists, whose attentional discipline can apparently confer all kinds of benefits even on non-Buddhists. (Some psychologists predict that, in the same way we go out for a jog now, in the future we’ll all do daily 20-to-30-minute “secular attentional workouts.”) Meditation can make your attention less “sticky,” able to notice images flashing by in such quick succession that regular brains would miss them. It has also been shown to elevate your mood, which can then recursively stoke your attention: Research shows that positive emotions cause your visual field to expand. The brains of Buddhist monks asked to meditate on “unconditional loving-kindness and compassion” show instant and remarkable changes: Their left prefrontal cortices (responsible for positive emotions) go into overdrive, they produce gamma waves 30 times more powerful than novice meditators, and their wave activity is coordinated in a way often seen in patients under anesthesia.

Gallagher stresses that because attention is a limited resource—one psychologist has calculated that we can attend to only 110 bits of information per second, or 173 billion bits in an average lifetime—our moment-by-moment choice of attentional targets determines, in a very real sense, the shape of our lives. Rapt’s epigraph comes from the psychologist and philosopher William James: “My experience is what I agree to attend to.” For Gallagher, everything comes down to that one big choice: investing your attention wisely or not. The jackhammers are everywhere—iPhones, e-mail, cancer—and Western culture’s attentional crisis is mainly a widespread failure to ignore them.

“Once you understand how attention works and how you can make the most productive use of it,” she says, “if you continue to just jump in the air every time your phone rings or pounce on those buttons every time you get an instant message, that’s not the machine’s fault. That’s your fault.”

Making the responsible attention choice, however, is not always easy. Here is a partial list, because a complete one would fill the entire magazine, of the things I’ve been distracted by in the course of writing this article: my texting wife, a very loud seagull, my mother calling from Mexico to leave voice mails in terrible Spanish, a man shouting “Your weed-whacker fell off! Your weed-whacker fell off!” at a truck full of lawn equipment, my Lost-watching wife, another man singing some kind of Spanish ballad on the sidewalk under my window, streaming video of the NBA playoffs, dissertation-length blog breakdowns of the NBA playoffs, my toenail spontaneously detaching, my ice-cream-eating wife, the subtly shifting landscapes of my three different e-mail in-boxes, my Facebooking wife, infinite YouTube videos (a puffin attacking someone wearing a rubber boot, Paul McCartney talking about the death of John Lennon, a chimpanzee playing Pac-Man), and even more infinite, if that is possible, Wikipedia entries: puffins, MacGyver, Taylorism, the phrase “bleeding edge,” the Boston Molasses Disaster. (If I were going to excuse you from reading this article for any single distraction, which I am not, it would be to read about the Boston Molasses Disaster.)

When the jackhammers fire up outside my window, in other words, I rarely ignore them—I throw the window open, watch for a while, bring the crew sandwiches on their lunch break, talk with them about the ins and outs of jackhammering, and then spend an hour or two trying to break up a little of the sidewalk myself. Some of my distractions were unavoidable. Some were necessary work-related evils that got out of hand. Others were pretty clearly inexcusable. (I consider it a victory for the integrity of pre-web human consciousness that I was able to successfully resist clicking on the first “related video” after the chimp, the evocatively titled “Guy shits himself in a judo exhibition.”) In today’s attentional landscape, it’s hard to draw neat borders.


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