Sunday, November 11, 2012

Wow look at That!: Attention, Worry and Distraction

By Gary Berg-Cross The recently completed, and ever so long, election process is only one of the Big things that have commanded our attention this season. Monitoring political ups and downs became a habit in 2012 (and with discussion of a Fiscal Cliff is likely to continue). This Fall one could tune in daily, or twice daily, to the latest polling stats. These are relatively easy to follow, but making sense of the statistics is hard. And there are so many issues to consider with largely secular ones swamped by hot button economic, jobs and fairness topics. It seems that large attention is going to be distracted from some Humantist concerns for quite a while.
Superstorm Sandy was another national-level, mind grabbing event whose consequences linger after holding the media’s attention.  Over days we were fed a series of projections followed by fearful storm of sights and sounds to us. Many of us couldn’t take our eyes off of the approaching storm, it whereabouts, landings and impacts. There was plenty to it. Sandy was no joke affecting millions from NC to Mass. On one day people awoke to tsunami like destruction of homes, businesses & infrastructure. Damaged, debris and destruction everywhere and for now too ling no electricity, heat, fuel or certain recovery for too many. But those of us out of the main storm path there was and some type of automated arousal to watch unfolding events as well as a deliberate one. Sandy was something to worry about and that grabs human attention. There was a confluence of at least 3 reasons for this – natural attention grabbing, motivation from anxiety and defensive distraction.  
Abstract topics like justice and freedom don't get a lot of attention even in normal times. One has to build an intellectual environment and have teachable moments. Some states of affairs are hot topics. You can understand part of the attraction by imagining a time when we lived in small tribes that unfolding events nearby would be of immense value to know – where is that tiger going? There is a built in system for certain types of events to grab our attention. Like thinking fast and slow cognitive science tells use there are 2 different ways that our brain processes information coming from the outside world. One is the evolutionarily more recent willful focus, as when we study a school topic produces.  In the brain the neo-cortex produces  "top-down" signals.  The other is a more primitive and automatic focus such as produced by an unexpected noise.  These are produced more "bottom-up" as shown by
monkey studies.  Researchers Miller and Buschman found that when a picture or object "popped out" at the creature, the parietal cortex jumps into action. When the monkeys were merely searching for the object, however, it was activity in the prefrontal cortex controlling the brain.
Anxiety & Anxious Narratives Some signals of possible danger demand our attention, but holding it is worry and fear. Getting the amount of concern with dynamic data, where will the storm hit and how much damage will it is – am I prepared?, is hard business taking a mix of the right information and lots of deliberate reasoning more than the evidence warrants. Long after satisfying one’s basic news needs about power disruptions, travel advisories, and closings/delays we are often left unsatisfied lingers around computer, phone and TV screens. There’s always more. Look, a tweets to a live video feed of a dangling construction crane in midtown NYC.  It’s a natural short story in the larger narrative and I want to know how it ends and who is impacted, even if there are no cranes in my sage suburban area.

Wake Forest professor Eric Wilson polishes up an old Jack London observation on disaster attraction in his new book, Everyone Loves A Good Train Wreck: Why We Can't Look Away. It is simple that we evolved in a challenging environment and never feel more alive than in times of distress, danger and calamity. The modern twist is that we may now get this strange alive feeling experience 2nd or 3rd hand through TV along with the earlier cultural artifacts of movies. Wilson notes that Edison “early film The Great Train Robbery" caused a cultural sensation because he:

 "realized at the beginning of narrative cinema that audiences love looking at terrible things."
It’s something that novelist realized earlier.

People, like David Ropeik (author of “How Risky Is It, Really?: Why Our Fears Don’t Always Match the Facts.”), who study risk perception talk about addictive following TV, scanning news sites and social media  as a weather or storm “porn” phenomena. We hook into staying informed constructing our own story interpretations much more than is useful. It’s like that habitual scanning of the environment just in case a predator will appear and trigger our fight-or-flight response, which release stress hormones and heighten our sensitivity to any new signs of danger. Hormone lifted anxiety creates a longer term positive feedback loop which in turn plunges us into more worry.  The more anxious and alarmed we become the readier we are to be anxious.


The last part of it is the value of distraction that demands attention in a stressful life. As Adam Hochschild said of it, “ Work is hard. Distractions are plentiful. And time is short.” This seems particularly true in modern life which is not only jammed scheduled but serviced by modern technology that affords distraction as well as convenience. It’s the ever present media mixed with social networks & mobile devices that affords opportunity for daily distractions.  And distractions are one way of handling stress and anxiety.  But in the case of a “storm porn” we have yet another part of a positive feedback process. Work is hard since we have some free floating anxiety cause by the possible impact of a storm. It is easy to think that “Perhaps a small distraction will allow me to get back to work.”  In earlier times it might have been a magazine or newspaper to read, or a movie or TV. Now it can be my smart phone. With ever present, new info these information break distractions are never ending and are just as likely to produce heightened anxiety. Tough times indeed for deliberative thinking and intellectual discourse on serious topics. Something to be reflexively anxious about.


  1.  NASA image of Sandy:  
  2. Sandy Approaches: 
  3.  How Risky Is It, Really: How Risky Is It, Really?: Why Our Fears Don’t Always Match the Facts   
  4. Afraid of Tigers?:

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