The importance of attention comes up repeatedly in the Healthymemory Blog. The most common reason for failing to remember is the failure to attend to the information. The failure to remember people’s names, to pick up items from the store, information on a test, and so forth is usually due to the failure to pay adequate attention in the first place. One of the primary reasons the mnemonic techniques discussed in this blog work, is that they force you to pay attention in the first place.
A recent article1 has expanded the concept of directed attention to include self-regulation. Directed attention is often termed selective attention. Selective attention refers attending to one source of information and ignoring, or selecting out, other sources of information. Selective attention is contrasted with divided attention when we attend, or try to attend, to multiple sources of information at the same time. These days a more common term for divided attention is multi-tasking. Sometimes it seems that in today’s world multi-tasking, especially among the young, has become the norm. I remember seeing a television program on PBS about students attending the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). It appeared that they were all multi-tasking practically all their waking hours. They all seemed to be of the opinion that there were no costs to multi-tasking and that they could perform multiple tasks at once without any of the individual tasks suffering. This opinion reflected a basic ignorance, even among these extremely intelligent MIT students, that our attentional resources are limited. Well our species, including MIT students, have a limited supply of attention. Moreover, the act of switching between tasks itself requires attention. MIT students can be disabused of their conviction that multi-tasking does have costs by examining the results of their performance comparing how well they did while multi-tasking against how well they did while single tasking.
Sometimes it is convenient to multi-task. I like to read while watching sports on TV. I do, however, realize that my comprehension and reading speed suffer as a result of multi-tasking. If it is important for me to understand and learn certain material, then I try to shut out all distractions.
One of the main contributions of the above cited Kaplan and Berman article is that it establishes a link between these cognitive activities and self-regulation. Self-regulation refers to pitting one’s intentions against one’s inclinations. The best example here is dieting. You’re intention is to lose weight, but your inclination is to eat a great deal because you are hungry. Similarly you might intend to eat a healthier diet, but your inclination is to eat tastier foods. Or your intention might be to study for an exam, but your inclination is to go to the movies. According to Kaplan and Berman, these self-regulation activities draw upon the same resources as do your efforts to attend to particular information or tasks. In other words, the reason we do not do as well as we might in both our cognitive and self-regulatory efforts is that they both require expenditures from this common pool. Moreover, continued expenditures from this pool result in fatigue, decrements in performance, and relapses in our intentions.
For example, when research participants were forced to eat radishes in the presence of more attractive cookies they were less persistent in solving puzzles and less effective in solving the puzzles than research participants who were not required to eat radishes in the presence of attractive cookies.
Other research has shown that either requiring research participants to ignore extraneous stimulation (selective attention) or to stifle emotional distress responses resulted in poorer performance as measured by intellectual aptitude tests such as the Graduate Record Examination (GRE). All these studies can be found in the Kaplan and Berman article.
One should recognize these relationships and limitations when planning personal goals. Planning to lose a significant amount of weight and master a difficult subject matter should not be attempted at the same time. It would be better to accomplish them sequentially or to pursue each more modestly. This is probably the reason that most of us who lose weight manage to find it again. While we are expending the resources to discipline ourselves we manage to lose the weight. However, later, as other demands are made on our attentional/regulatory resources, the weight returns.
1Kaplan, S., & Berman, M.G. (2010). Directed Attention as a Common Resource for Executive Functioning and Self-Regulation. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 5:43.
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