What is our experience of attention and distraction really like? It’s a deceptively simple question we feel like we know what distraction is until we stop to think about it harder. The topic itself delves into metacognition, of trying to be aware of our own thought processes.
Some research attempts to answer this question from a scientific approach. From Wired: “Here’s scientific proof your brain was designed to be distracted”, there is a suggestion from some research at Berkeley and Princeton that it might be an ebb and flow experience:
“Researchers have found that rather than being laser-like, attention is actually more akin to a spotlight that continually dims and comes back on again … For instance, while it may seem that you are continuously focusing on reading this article, the reality is that youʼre zooming in and out of attention up to four times per second.”
If we accept this idea, then the experience of attention is more like quick bursts rather than long sustained focus and that these different states of mind are in fact literally different brain states as well. For those that are interested, here’s a link to the study cited above: “A Dynamic Interplay within the Frontoparietal Network Underlies Rhythmic Spatial Attention.”
From what we do know now about the neuroscience of distraction, it seems that we are always on some level a little bit distracted. Some part of our brain is constantly scanning our environment for novel stimuli, even when it does seem to us that we are solely focused on the task that we are concentrating on. This isn’t a failing of our attention spans, so much as it is a feature of biology, as Adam Gazzaley and Larry Rosen cover in-depth in their fascinating book: The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High Tech World
On a related note is this brief article from Scientific American which mentions some other research that takes a different approach, of attention through the suppression of distraction suggesting that maybe we have some volitional control over what and how we get distracted: “How the Brain Ignores Distractions”