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Posts Tagged ‘focus’

Remember when I wrote this?

This next year, my wife’s going to bring home the bacon. And I’m going to bring up the baby. And do the dishes. And fold the laundry. And take out the garbage. And clean the cat box. And shop for groceries. And have supper ready. And assemble the crib. And paint the nursery. And rock a screaming baby to sleep at 3 o’clock in the morning. And, on certain nights, stare up in to the city-bleached sky and wonder if this is part of the journey or the destination itself. Or both.

Well, that all still stands. I’m still ready to do those things. I just had no idea that I would be doing them all at once.

And yet that’s what every body keeps telling me about parenting – i.e. that it’s a Herculean feat of multitasking. Brian Chen had a post on Wired last Monday about what multitasking technology is doing to our ability to concentrate. In it, he talks to Vaughan Bell, a neuropsychologist and clinician at the Universidad de Antioquia, who compares our waning focus to parenting:

“If you think Twitter is an attention magnet, try living with an infant,” Bell said. “Kids are the most distracting thing there is, and when you have three or even four in the house it is both impossible to focus on one thing — and stressful, because the consequences of not keeping an eye on your kids can be frightening even to think about.”

(Kids are indeed distracting: A British study found that for drivers, the distraction of squabbling kids can slow down break-reaction times by 13 percent — as much as alcohol.)

And here I was thinking that having a kid might be a good occasion to get sober.

But, seriously, I wonder if this generation of parents is prepared to multitask in a way their parents were not. As we speak, I am writing this post . . . while texting my wife . . . while watching the preview for Monday Night Football . . . while answering incoming emails . . . while boiling eggs for my wife’s breakfast tomorrow. And somehow, I feel like I’ve got everything under control.

So, thank you, the internets. And email. And smart phones. And social networking. And, even, 24 hours news networks that have “Breaking News” whenever someone farts. You’ve all ruined my ability to perform long-duration analytical thinking, but you may have made me a high-functioning parent in the process.

Also, the extra arms I’ve grown help.

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If you’ve ever wondered how your baby sees the world, there’s an interesting article in Wired today about exactly that. Unlike adults who can direct their focus, babies focus on everything at once:

What is it like to look at the world like an infant? The question is particularly interesting because the ability to pay attention, focusing that spotlight on a thin slice of the stage, depends on the frontal cortex, that lobe of brain behind the forehead. Alas, the frontal cortex isn’t fully formed until late adolescence – ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny – which means that it’s just beginning to solidify in babies. The end result is that little kids struggle to focus.

This has led the UC-Berkeley developmental psychologist Alison Gopnik – I’m a huge fan of her latest book, The Philosophical Baby – to suggest that babies don’t have a spotlight of attention: They have a lantern. If attention is like a focused beam in adults, then it’s more like a glowing bulb in babies, casting a diffuse radiance across the world. This crucial difference in attention has been demonstrated indirectly in a variety of experiments. For instance, when preschoolers are shown a photograph of someone – let’s call her Jane— looking at a picture, and asked questions about what Jane is paying attention to, the weirdness of their attention becomes clear. Not surprisingly, the kids agree that Jane is thinking about the picture she’s staring at. But they also insist that she’s thinking about the picture frame, and the wall behind the picture, and the chair lurking in her peripheral vision. In other words, they believe that Jane is attending to whatever she can see.

Or consider this memory task designed by John Hagen, a developmental psychologist at the University of Michigan. A child is given a deck of cards and shown two cards at a time. The child is told to remember the card on the right and to ignore the card on the left. Not surprisingly, older children and adults are much better at remembering the cards they were told to focus on, since they’re able to direct their attention. However, young children are often better at remembering the cards on the left, which they were supposed to ignore. The lantern casts its light everywhere.

This sounds a little bit like how I watch TV. I keep trying to ignore that stupid “blast of hydration” Schick commercial, but every time I close my eyes it’s the only thing I see. Maybe my frontal cortex needs a tweak.

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