Jan 3, 2021

The Price of Distraction

Personal post (There will be a lot of these in 2021)
Notes on "The Price of Distraction", a Sam Harris podcast with Adam Gazzaley


Classic example of multi-tasking: Being on the phone with someone while also checking email.

The term multi-tasking is confusing and ill-defined. We all do it and we think we're pretty good at it. And we feel pleasure while doing it versus single-tasking. It feels natural and that we can get better at it.

From a behavioral point of view we multi-task all the time. We sometimes use the term to mean parallel processing. Studies of brain activity show that we can't really parallel process. The processes are always intertwined and steal cycles from the other as necessary.

If you CAN OFFLOAD the need for attention (aka it becomes reflexive) then you can multi-task effectively. An example would be talking to someone and driving. The minute that changes is the moment that the conflict arrives. If something is in the middle of the road then your attention is required and you lose the other task. You stop hearing what the person who is talking to you is saying.

2 jargon phrases in cognitive sciences. "Bottom-up" and "Top-down". Bottom up attention is when you have limited mental resources being activated by the external stimuli (e.g., someone calls your name or a lion roars behind you). Top down attention is the goal directed attention where you make a decision about where to direct attention (e.g., you chose to listen to a podcast).

We are always paying attention to something and that direction moves around without a clear directive from you. This is part of what meditation is trying to correct by making us aware of this lack of direction and trying to get us to engage in direction setting. We often experience this degradation to sustain attention for the task at hand ("I need a break" or "I want to check Instagram"). We seek this 'dopamine' hit by switching attention to something else. We are unaware of the switching costs. What do we know about this switching process?

Our top-down attention can be interfered with on many levels. External stimulation is an obvious one (phone rings or notification alert). Another is internal distractions like an aching joints. Another is that you for some reason decide (could be subconscious) to move away from your current goal (I'll write an email while listening to this podcast and think about what I'm having for dinner tonight). Let's call these 1) external, 2) internal physical, and 3) internal mental attention modifiers.


There is one cost that you have to remind yourself of what you were just doing ("now where was I?"). You have another cost related to the switching costs to get back into the task you were conducting before distraction ("how was I processing this information in Excel?"). Is there another cost that is emotional and almost paradoxical? Multitasking is born from time poverty. A sense of urgency that comes from not having enough time to do what we want to do. It seems brilliant to multitask. So there may be a reward and anxiety component to attention switching.

Internal states like boredom, anxiety, stress drive our internal mental choices driving us to distraction. Technology is now designed to game us into distraction thus capturing our attention. Increasing this technology is 'weaponized'.

Theory: We are foraging for information like we used to forage for food. There is a predictive tool that forecasts how long a squirrel will forage in a given patch. It's a function of when was the last time the squirrel found food in this patch and how far away is the next patch of potential food. The squirrel will use these inputs to determine if it should move to the new patch. 

If applied to humans, it may explain how we forage for information:
  1. How much value is gained from continuing to forage for information in the current patch? (should I read the whole article or stop at 75% or 25% or even just read the headline?)
  2. How much value is gained from moving to a new information patch? (Should I read a new article?)
In most cases finding a new information patch has become very easy and has zero cost. Every information patch is almost entirely at our fingertips now so we switch often and easily.

But it's worse than this. We have internal forces that are making the evaluation of point 1 different from 30 years ago
  1. We are intolerant of boredom. It almost hurts. 
  2. We feel anxiety that we are missing out on something else (FOMO).
  3. We feel anxiety that we aren't being maximally productive.
Those 3 feelings accumulate over time and drive us out of the current patch. There is no resistance to switching so we're always doing light foraging

In some sense boredom has been driven to extinction. Contrast with how long we spent in Blockbuster finding a perfect movie and how prone to failure it was. There was no guarantee that we'd come out of a video store with something to watch. Now we have access to everything and it's so frictionless. And yet our reward response to stimuli seems to be diminishing (see binge watching, binge reading, binge scrolling). We are more exposed to boredom killing things and yet we are being tuned to be less resilient to boredom than we have ever been.

A little bit hunger isn't a bad thing. Perhaps a little bit of boredom is good for us too. Does it help us appreciate the non-boredom moments more?

What is the recommendation?
  1. Make foraging areas harder to get to. Put your phone away. Close multiple tabs. Turn off notifications. Seclude yourself. Being outside of civilization without a phone is probably a perfect setting to avoid distraction.
  2. Practice the art of single-tasking. Embrace boredom, and heightened productivity. "For an hour I'm going to do this one activity" Start with small periods of time and feel what happens. Work through it and stick with it. Avoid sink holes when you do take a break (meditate or take a walk don't open Instagram). And then get back into the focus and extend the period over time. Train to be a "long distance runner)
  3. Meditation is a great way to develop single-tasking capabilities. 
  4. Digital medicine. Using technology that is designed to help us focus. This is highly specific and not very available right now. But for example video games could be designed to help us single task.
Sam Harris quotes: 
  • "The Sam Harris of 20 years ago would not have been able to imagine finding reading a book for an hour at all difficult. [...]. It's like forecasting that at some point you're going to find it hard to eat ice cream."
  • "What you don't take for responsibility here is going to happen to you based on other people's business models"

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