We often regard a failure of focus as a failure of will, or a moral failure. But there’s also a physical and physiological foundation to our capacity to focus on a problem, or remember a number. And there’s an interesting study that suggests that our tendency to wander off-topic isn’t so much a function of willpower, or our mental inadequacies, as it is a reflection of our natural capacity for what scientists call “habituation."
Habituation is the phenomenon where you stop noticing regular things in your environment: the rain on the roof, the ticking of a clock, the objects in your field of vision. We think our vision encompasses a nearly-hemispherical area in front of us, but in fact our eyes are only focused on a small part of that world at any given time, and we stop keeping track of things that aren’t moving. Our brains are good at creating a sense that we’re continuously observing the world, though that illusion is not perfect— if we’re concentrating hard while reading, for example, we can be surprised by the “sudden" appearance of a bird on the windowsill or a person in the room.
A couple years ago, University of Illinois psychology professor Alejandro Lleras wondered, what if focus is subject to the same rules that govern sensory habituation? What if our minds naturally tend to wander off things we think are repetitive? As he explained in 2012,
For 40 or 50 years, most papers published on the vigilance decrement treated attention as a limited resource that would get used up over time, and I believe that to be wrong. You start performing poorly on a task because you've stopped paying attention to it. But you are always paying attention to something. Attention is not the problem.
That insight that attention isn’t something that waxes and wanes, but instead is something that’s always directed somewhere, led him to draw a parallel between the attention we give to a task, and the fact that we tend to “edit out” stationary objects in our environment:
Constant stimulation is registered by our brains as unimportant, to the point that the brain erases it from our awareness. So I thought, well, if there's some kind of analogy about the ways the brain fundamentally processes information, things that are true for sensations ought to be true for thoughts. If sustained attention to a sensation makes that sensation vanish from our awareness, sustained attention to a thought should also lead to that thought's disappearance from our mind!
He and his colleague Atsunori Ariga, then a postdoc at University of Illinois, constructed a simple test. Four groups of students were given slightly different tasks.
- The first (the control group) had to spend 40 minutes doing a “vigilance test,” in which they looked at a flashing line on a screen. Every now and then the length would change, and they were supposed to note whenever it changed. The line flashed 30 times a minute, so subjects looked at lines… over… and over… and over… a total of 1200 times.
- A second group (the “no-switch” group) had to memorize a four-digit number before doing the vigilance test.
- A third group (the “switch” group) memorized the four-digit number, then started the vigilance test; but this group also had very short breaks (after 600 and 900 lines) where they were tested on the number.
- A fourth group (the “digit-ignored” group) saw the same thing that the switch group saw, but was told to ignore the numbers.
To be clear, the purpose of the experiment wasn’t to test whether people could remember the numbers; it was testing whether having this other brief task helped people pay attention to the lines— that is, their performance on the vigilance test.
What they found was that the performance of the third group was pretty consistent, but everybody else got worse over time.
So does this mean that multitasking is actually good? Does texting while driving make you a better driver.
As they put it, "heightened levels of vigilance can be maintained over prolonged periods of time with the use of brief, relatively rare and actively controlled disengagements from the vigilance task.” But they’re testing how well you do on a very simple task. If you’re working on an assembly line, and literally the only think you do is make sure that three bolts are properly tightened, then this kind of break is essential. But if you’re doing something complex, then introducing a second task isn’t going to improve your performance. Indeed, the opposite is a lot more likely.
The challenge is to find a brief respite that is different, but doesn’t threaten to take too much time. This is why a “quick” email check is problematic: checking your email is rarely quick, because there’s almost always something that you feel needs an immediate reply, or leads to something else.
But you can imagine that automobile auto-pilots could be really useful here: if they were designed to let you take 30 seconds every 10 minutes or so to refocus your eyes, blink, and maybe run through some mental exercise— a couple Trivial Pursuit questions, for example— that could recharge your ability to stay focused on the road.
Here’s the abstract:
We newly propose that the vigilance decrement occurs because the cognitive control system fails to maintain active the goal of the vigilance task over prolonged periods of time (goal habituation). Further, we hypothesized that momentarily deactivating this goal (via a switch in tasks) would prevent the activation level of the vigilance goal from ever habituating. We asked observers to perform a visual vigilance task while maintaining digits in-memory. When observers retrieved the digits at the end of the vigilance task, their vigilance performance steeply declined over time. However, when observers were asked to sporadically recollect the digits during the vigilance task, the vigilance decrement was averted. Our results present a direct challenge to the pervasive view that vigilance decrements are due to a depletion of attentional resources and provide a tractable mechanism to prevent this insidious phenomenon in everyday life.