Nicholas Carr, in his fantastic 2010 book The Shallows, describes turning on a computer today as plunging into an “ecosystem of interruption technologies” (p91). Today’s computers and mobile devices play on two deeply embedded vulnerabilities in our brains:
- Firstly, they reward us with dopamine when someone interacts with us online (refer last week’s post).
- Secondly, they play havoc with our “attentional filters”, by always providing something new.
Your “attentional filter” operates to filter out most of the external stimuli hitting your brain through your five senses every second. If we didn’t have an effective attentional filter, we would be sunk in a sea of meaningless stimuli – unable to see the signal from the noise. As Daniel J Levitin explains in his book The Organised Mind it’s your attentional filter that screens out extraneous information while you’re driving, but alerts you when the road changes from smooth to bumpy. You haven’t been aware of the smoothness of the road, your attentional filter has filtered out that information so you can listen to the radio: but when the road changes you suddenly notice it, your attentional filter has allowed in that new information about the change in the road. And at that point you can give it your attention and decide if you need to do anything (p10).
Levitin points out that a key trigger for your attentional filter is change. In other words, your attentional filter is designed to detect and respond to novelty. Now think about the last time you worked at a computer. Think about the email alerts you received. The Facebook, Twitter and Yammer updates that came through. Think about going on to one webpage in search of something, and then being drawn down a rabbit hole of hyperlinks. Why? Because your attention is vulnerable to novelty.
Of course, when we were on the savanna there were great evolutionary reasons for having attentional filters that allowed in new things. The tiger bearing down on you is a change in your environment that is good for you to know about. Evolution will favour the monkey with the attentional filter that notifies of this change. But these days, we descendants of that monkey are now more likely to have a Facebook status update bearing down on us than a tiger. And I suggest that sensitivity to Facebook updates is probably not an evolutionary advantage.
So, through the unhappy combination of dopamine reward loops and attentional filters vulnerable to novelty, we are wired to be distracted and interrupted by technology.
And I’m sure I don’t need to tell you about how hard it is to refocus after being interrupted. One recent study (by Iqbal and Horvitz, 2007) found that a worker takes 9 minutes to return to their original task on the computer after receiving an email alert. Why? Once they’ve been interrupted they get further distracted with other emails, not just the original one they responded to.
So, if you do nothing else as a result of this article, switch off your email alerts. If you don’t, and you get an email alert while working on a vital piece of work, 40% of the time you will respond to it within 3 seconds and then go on to waste the next 9 minutes.
Next week – in part three of this series – we’ll talk about how technology helps you to “self-interrupt” – an idea that is as alarming as it sounds.
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