Much has been said in the last decade about the fact that information technology has made it difficult for people to focus on their work. Nicolas Carr in his best selling book, The Shallows has gone so far as to claim that our brains are being (adversely) rewired by technology. In Cognitive Productivity I argued against Carr’s pessimistic, neuro-babbling characterization of our problems.
Technology is not the proximal source of distraction. Enter a room with a desk, paper, pencil and eraser and start to tackle a problem that requires only these tools. Or go for a walk with the intention of solving a particular problem. You might still find yourself distracted by some other concerns that are “on your mind”.
The proximal sources of distraction are the mechanisms in our minds that generate tertiary emotions, which we call perturbances. Perturbance is a uniquely human class of emotions that involves a loss of control over the conscious processing of our own “motivators” (wishes, wants, desires, goals and concerns). Anger, grief, jealousy, fear, being lovestruck, all involve this loss of control of attention.
Each of these emotions can affect your cognitive productivity. And we are all susceptible to emotion. (Not only are there no human equivalents of Mr. Spock and Data; they are impossible. No fully autonomous agency without emotions.)
So, it’s important to understand how emotions come about and how to relate to them. Should we try to quel them? If so, how? By deeply understanding how to manage internal sources of distraction we will be better able to address the easier case of external distraction.
Perturbance will be the subject of my next post.