Mathew Meyers, MA, LMFT
Did I get your attention? There has been some suggestion that the ability to focus has been decreasing in recent years. Although there is some controversy about the research on this issue, some suggest that humans have only an 8 second span of attention (shorter than that of a goldfish) without losing interest in the task or subject of focus.
While this may or may not be true, what we do understand is that our brains essentially have two separate ways of paying attention. The first, is what some refer to as the reactive attention system. This attention system is designed to keep us aware of any danger or threats in our environment. It helps us identify where to get our basic needs met, and to identify pleasurable and feel good activities in our environment. It also picks up on the novel and elements that are out of the ordinary around us. It picks up any changes in our environment. Our digital devices do an incredible job of activating this part of our attention. The beeps, buzzes, and blinking all activate our reactive attentions system. In addition, they have created a Pavlovian response in which we associate beep, buzz, blinking with a reward making it very difficult to resist the urge to engage.
The second attention system has been characterized as the focus attention system. This system assists us in working through difficult problems. It is demonstrated through conscious and deliberate attention to a task or subject. Writing this article, for instance is requiring a great deal of focus attention, especially as I look out my window at the beauty (out of the ordinary) outside. There are many other potential disruptions to my focus attention on this article. Carolyn brought in chocolate chip cookies to our office today. Enjoying several of those would be a novel and very pleasurable experience that, at the moment, I am having great difficulty refraining from setting down this article and…
mmm. Thanks Carolyn! Those were good. Okay, where was I? Oh yea, focus attention system. Some have described the focus attention system like a muscle that can be strengthened through practice and working out.
Why is focus attention important?
Focus attention not only helps us complete difficult tasks, but to enter deeper into thought about a problem. To consider solutions not yet considered. It helps us enter deeper into conversation and thereby enter deeper into relationship.
In a digitized world that is always connected, we are always a beep, buzz, blinking light away from a disruption to our focus attention. When these disruptions occur, we do not strengthen or stretch out our focus attention system. In fact, we begin to multi-task.
Research on multi-tasking demonstrates that as we divide our attention we make more mistakes and take longer to complete tasks. Although some research indicates slight improvement in our capacity to multi-task in recent years, we still find that focus attention allows us to complete tasks with greater efficiency and greater accuracy.
Multi-tasking, Focus attention and relationships
Relationships require focused attention. Disruptions break the flow of intimate sharing, don’t allow a safe space to dive deeper into difficult, scary, and vulnerable feelings. Without developing the ability to stay engaged in a conversation, seeing it through to the end, even through any awkward pauses, our relationships do not experience the depth of intimacy that come with sharing our own and validating another person’s inadequacies, vulnerabilities, and insecurities. We do not get to be accepted, flaws, foibles and all. And we do not have to the opportunity to accept another.
What do we do now?
Strengthen this focus attention system. We can help ourselves and any children or teens that we are responsible for by setting and modeling behavior that minimizes disruptions when focusing on a activity. Especially when that activity is a relationship. How we set aside our devices to be present with each other matters in increasing our focus attention system as well as the depth and quality of our relationships.
The questions below may help you to think about ways in which you can strengthen your own focus attentions system:
- Where to I put my phone when I sit down to eat with someone else?
- What do I do when in a conversation with another human being in the real and my phone beeps, buzzes, blinks
- When I am concentrating on a task what is my tolerance for boredom?
- What are the places you make sacred from the disruptions of technology?
- What are we showing any children or teens in our world about being present with them and with our significant others by our own behavior with our digital devices?
To find out more in the focus attentions system, click the link here to go to Mind Positive Parenting
Other blogs by Mathew Meyers, MA, LMFT