Even Good Things Can Wear Out Attention
It is really remarkable how well humans are at self-regulation overall, how our instincts and preferences can guide us. But as we know, they are not infallible.
We all know that there can be a disjunct between what’s good for us and what feels good.
Often this is because the environment we’ve adapted to over multitudes of generations has changed. Rare food supplies have become abundant. Heavy exercise in the course of daily routines has become rare. The concentration of what we encounter has changed. For example, concentrated sugar used to be very hard to get—honey was almost the only raw source. Now we are awash in syrup—much of it high-fructose, which can vex our metabolism.
Another, more dire, example is that in nature, it is very unusual to come into contact with concentrated sources of nuclear radiation. Which may be why humans do not come with built-in nuclear detectors. We don’t hurt or sweat or get itchy when we are exposed to this kind of radiation, even though it is very dangerous to us.
A similar thing happens with cognitive instincts. We like things that are bright, flashy, have a good story line, are mysterious but still make sense, and are survival related. But, even though these things are fascinating, and do not drain attention for that reason, they also have aspects, especially in the modern forms we contact most frequently, that do indeed require concentration.
Unfortunately (and this is something you will not hear on TV!) television is notorious for draining attention. This is partly due to the chopped up nature of commercial television—where the aim is to fascinate you enough to keep you watching through the commercials, which are the bottom line of TV. So just when you really get interested, you get interrupted, and have to try to hold a train of thought through a commercial.
Another aspect of television that makes it unusually hard on directed attention is that the screen size often takes up just a small angle of vision—this means you have to work hard just to keep your eyes glued to the screen. Larger TV screens will help this, but increased commercials may erase any improvement.
Third, many parts of television increasingly use the “MTV effect”—fast cuts, fancy transitions, odd camera angles, to hook in really basic human neurophysiology to keep us engaged. (Even frogs pay attention to movement!)
But they can only go so far in keeping us tuned to boring content, and may in themselves be fatiguing if done in the wrong way or at the wrong speed.
2 Video Games
However, many of us have suffered from the “Mall Syndrome,” coming home after even a short bout of shopping exhausted, irritable, and our of focus. In part this is because of simple too-muchness. We were built to discriminate between several bushes full of berries, not hundreds of forests full of them. Making a choice between two or three things is fun and engaging. Making a choice between three dozen almost identical things is disconcerting and depleting. (reference)
5. Social activities
that actually are good for us may drain attention
Because of this, when we engage in these activities, it’s a good idea to schedule break time, and plan for restoration time.
C. Some things
that do not drain attention can also be bad for us!
Blood sports are a good example. You may lose a limb bullfighting or alligator wrestling, but you will probably not be very distracted. So just because you feel focused and energized does not in itself mean something is good for you overall!
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