There Isn't Very Much That Gets Your Undivided Attention... And That May Be A Good Thing

from the wandering-minds dept

In this age of what's been called "continuous partial attention" and the increasing tendency of people to multitask, rather than just focus on one thing, researchers are starting to dig into why the brain tends to wander so much. It's not the easiest thing to study, because it's one of those things that the more you try to pay attention to it, the more you're likely to impact the results -- but there's been some research done where people are asked what they're thinking about at random times, and it suggests that we're pretty naturally wired to have wandering minds. Of course, this should be common sense, but it still seems to cause trouble at companies where management feels that it's "bad" for anyone to ever focus on anything but work. The simple fact is that you can't be "on" all the time, and your attention is going to wander, no matter what you're doing. In fact, some studies have shown that giving people a chance to let their minds wander can actually be quite good for productivity. In fact, the research discussed in the article above suggests that mind wandering is actually how the brain tries to increase productivity, by making use of "spare cycles" to continually work on random problems even when it's not the immediate focus. The fact that the wandering sometimes is unproductive is simply a natural side-effect of that. Basically, it's a recognition that not everything we're doing requires full attention -- and perhaps "continuous partial attention" is how are brains were originally wired for some very good reasons.

Reader Comments (rss)

(Flattened / Threaded)

  1. identicon
    yogi, Mar 19th, 2007 @ 9:57pm


    News flash: there is such a thing called "meditation" that addresses these questions perfectly well. Just do some meditation. All your questions will be answered without such ridiculous research.
    Correction - do a lot of meditation.Without such practice this kind of research is no better than the efforts of a blind man attempting to describe the view.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  2. identicon
    g, Mar 19th, 2007 @ 10:13pm

    Re: meditation

    I second this. In our western culture meditation is seen as pointless or new-age silliness, but the point of meditation is to pay attention to your body.

    We have a split life, we think about ourselves as something abstract, but we have a physical body.

    Meditation gives you time to pay attention to your body and nothing else. Exercise does this in some ways, but quietly sitting/laying down and listening to your body, all its parts, will calm you down a lot (even when youre not doing it), relax muscles that tense without you knowing about them, and give you a better sense of who and what you are.

    Everyone should try this for a few months of their lives to see if its worth ignoring or not. Ignoring it without trying is denying yourself something that you may like, and may be good for you. It certainly doesnt hurt to know yourself better.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  3. identicon
    Scott, Mar 19th, 2007 @ 10:25pm

    I Third that

    By All means meditation is the mechanism by which we turn off the multitasking and chatter our minds have become so trained to do at the expense of knowing who we are and what we need to be doing for ourselves rather than what our consumer-driven society screams we should be doing. When the rat-race gets old, stop being the rat and leave the race. As "g" suggests, give it a try.


    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  4. identicon
    Moi, Mar 19th, 2007 @ 10:50pm

    That's interesting...

    I agree...wait, what were you saying?

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  5. identicon
    Om Shanti Ramalamadingdong, Mar 19th, 2007 @ 11:41pm

    Meditation has no more merit than Scientology's "auditing". The point of this article is not that multi-tasking is bad. Its just something we are hardwired to do. Even when meditating.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  6. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Mar 20th, 2007 @ 1:22am

    Multi-tasking while meditating kind of defeats the whole purpose of it. That's one thing that's pretty common in ALL different forms of meditation.... Focus.....

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  7. identicon
    Cixelsid, Mar 20th, 2007 @ 1:52am


    I tried meditation once. Then I got bored and watched some tv.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  8. identicon
    Danno, Mar 20th, 2007 @ 2:16am

    Om: Auditng hasn't got shit to do with meditation. It's simply an isolated state of flow.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  9. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Mar 20th, 2007 @ 3:39am

    Coming from India, I've seen a whole load of people from the West (and a few from the East, for that matter) come here for "spirituality lessons". The fact is that most people who teach you how to meditate are cash milking morons...the books, the films, the classes are all a load of rubbish. Maybe there is something in meditation, but I ain't gonna let some crossdressing lunatic with a squeaky voice teach me about it.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  10. identicon
    billy, Mar 20th, 2007 @ 5:20am

    my undivided attention

    Video games always get my full attention
    I can even ignore people who walk up to my side in the peripheral vision and talk to me
    My body just kind of responds
    I have no clue how i responded, or that the conversation ever took place
    Its really neat
    Although, my parents and brother back when I lived with them realized if they just said my name first a time or two and waved their hand where i could see it, that would work to get some of my attention.
    But yah, video games rock.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  11. identicon
    hmm, Mar 20th, 2007 @ 7:29am

    I don't know who keeps posting these, but it seems to me he needs to get back to work. All of us are aware of our minds wandering, and a lot of the time, working on something else can help your subconscious have time to chew on the problem, but whatever it is you are doing, do your best at it. I get tired of seeing people cheat companies out of money (which is stealing) by not working as hard as they know they can or with the dedication they can. Then they wonder why the next promotion passes them by...

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  12. identicon
    Scott, Mar 20th, 2007 @ 12:51pm

    Re: my undivided attention

    But you will not always have a video game by your side to keep you occupied - one day you may have to face your thoughts directly (you certainly will on your death bed). There is a famous quote (I paraphrase): One of Man's greatest failures is to be unable to sit quietly in a room with his thoughts. If you haven't tried it (yet), you might be in for a surprise. Most people can't spend more than a few minutes w/o grabbing a book, a pen to write something, or drifting off into day dreaming. It takes quietness to hear yourself. Madison avenue wants you to follow their "dream" of consumerism and they do a great job at that by making you think you are what you own or "do" for a living. When you think their way, you are following the noise being created by the culture and it will be difficult for you to find peace (because the name of the selling game is to never let you find it - they need to keep you off-balance and wanting to buy), thus the noise of "the next new thing/fashion" will never leave you unless you learn to stop listening to it. To find peace, you need to know yourself - not what someone else tells you need to be or are. You cannot find that in a video game, new car, drug, sex, partner or whatever.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  13. identicon
    Scott, Mar 20th, 2007 @ 12:58pm


    re: hmm: isn't reading and responding to these posts as you have done "wasting" your employer's time too? Perhaps people are posting at lunch or after hours. Isn't it up to their bosses to determine if they are properly prioritizing their work/free time? From a bigger perspective, it seems like we have ample toys and things in our lives and that someone spending their "work" time voicing their opinions on whatever they find important (such as you have done) is probably not going to affect our toy production much. Perhaps you are angry that you have to work so much and that if everyone else worked that much harder, you could work less. I would suggest if you don’t like working so much, don’t wait for others to work harder - just make the decision to work less - to suit your own needs.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  14. identicon
    Charles Griswold, Mar 20th, 2007 @ 5:11pm


    Maybe once science has addressed wandering minds, it could investigate wandering comment threads. ;-)

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  15. identicon
    billy, Mar 21st, 2007 @ 10:03am

    Re: Re: my undivided attention

    Scott, I think you completely misconstrued what I was talking about man.
    I was just saying that when I play a game, it is possible for me to become engrossed in it.
    I have plenty of time to think with no noise.
    Do that during shower in morning, and the 40min drive to and from work.
    Oh wait, that goes back to the multi tasking and using spare brain cycles =P

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  16. identicon
    Martin Bilski, Mar 27th, 2007 @ 2:25am


    Find those that aren't 'cash milking morons' *if* you want to learn something. If you need to have you car fixed, go to a shop with reasonable people who you can trust. If you got ripped off a few times -- who's a moron here?

    (And "you" doesn't mean the actual yourself so don't get distracted by it ;)

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  17. identicon
    mahendra kumar poonar, Mar 26th, 2008 @ 3:26am

    Nav chetana shiver

    I favourite is a nav chetana shiver i stareted a nav chetana shiver in a barmer district gavn guda malani rajasthan

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  18. identicon
    mahendra kumar poonar, Mar 26th, 2008 @ 3:28am

    Nav chetana shiver

    I favourite is a nav chetana shiver i stareted a nav chetana shiver in a barmer district gavn guda malani rajasthan

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

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