Cognitive Cash

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images-23Fascinating story in the NY Times today on the science of concentration by the reliably interesting John Tierney. His subject is Rapt, a new book by Winifred Gallagher. The upshot: focus is like money. We each get only so much, and we can only spend it one place at a time.

“Multitasking is a myth,” Ms. Gallagher said. “You cannot do two things at once. The mechanism of attention is selection: it’s either this or it’s that.” She points to calculations that the typical person’s brain can process 173 billion bits of information over the course of a lifetime.

“People don’t understand that attention is a finite resource, like money,” she said. “Do you want to invest your cognitive cash on endless Twittering or Net surfing or couch potatoing? You’re constantly making choices, and your choices determine your experience, just as William James said.”

I couldn’t help but think of the Clint Eastwood-like expressions of focused concentration I saw at the talent hotbeds. If concentration is like money, then they certainly know how to spend it in the right place.


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2 Responses to “Cognitive Cash”

  1. Michael says:

    A great reason why the 20th Century assembly line business model was a recipe for making people stupid. Everyone caught up in squeezing out more efficiency from the line uses up their focus on things that are irrelevant to the rest of life. One has to hope that Drucker was right that the future is with “knowledge workers” — or that there is some other antidote to this problem. But I think we still lack the tools to empower people to pursue careers based on building wisdom and making connections based on that, rather than just the “platforms” we have so far. Work to do?

  2. Interesting point, but I would add that the “muscle” of switching attention from one thing to another has developed in many of us, dramatically, in recent years.

    Looking at any news or sports station on TV, there are scores for other games, there are clocks, there are downs and strikes and runs and pitches and temperatures in other cities, and oh by the way the main event/newscaster.

    Just as we have to scan our e-mail inboxes and make split second decisions about what to open (and many we basically put post it notes in our brains to go back to that thing that needs to get done right after you respond to this other one), we are learning to shift focus very fast.

    I am reminded of an old, and very funny, show called Short Attention Span Theater, and I think that we are quite literally training ourselves, and being trained, to have shorter attention spans, which is among the reasons we are seeing lower numbers in books and newspapers purchased and read.

    That’s my $.02

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