How to fake an ATM

Satellite fastball

“Attention Deficit Trait”

Dr. Edward Hallowell has studied Attention Deficit Disorder for a decade, and now he thinks he’s diagnosed a related sydrome: Attention Deficit Trait. It has basically the symptoms as ADD — such as an inability to concentrate on one task at at time — except it’s context dependent. ADT is caused by the technologies of constant interruption in the modern workplace and the modern home, such as email, instant messaging, SMSes, mobile phones, and endless meetings (or endless preplanned children’s sports). The thing that makes the two conditions different, he says, is that ADD seems to be hardwired, while ADT goes away when you’re on vacation or in a relaxing, non-hyper-stimulated place.

CNET has interview with him, and I found this comment particularly intriguing:

No one really multitasks. You just spend less time on any one thing. When it looks like you’re multitasking—you’re looking at one TV screen and another TV screen and you’re talking on the telephone—your attention has to shift from one to the other. You’re brain literally can’t multitask. You can’t pay attention to two things simultaneously. You’re switching back and forth between the two. So you’re paying less concerted attention to either one.

I think in general, why some people can do well at what they call multitasking is because the effort to do it is so stimulating. You get adrenaline pumping that helps focus your mind. What you’re really doing is focusing better at brief spurts on each stimulus. So you don’t get bored with either one.

That makes sense to me. Sometimes when I catch myself endlessly flipping back and forth into email when I’m supposed to be doing research or writing, I initially think I’m procrastinating. But then I wonder whether I’m doing something weirder: Using email almost like a sip of caffeine, a way to tickle my brain.

I’m torn over the pathologization of high-tech interruptions. On the one hand, I certainly do find that I need serious, serious bouts of monomaniacal concentration to produce my best work. When I’m in the middle of a six-hour writing jag, the last thing I want is an interruption. But at the same time, the backlash against multitasking seems to a strange melange of purse-lipped Puritanism and psychotherapeutic/hippie/prechewed-Eastern-philosophy concepts of how the ultimate goal in life is just to, y’know, empty your mind. Hey, I love it when my mind is still, but I love it when it’s crazy too. The riot of a multithreaded workday — when I’m simultaneously Googling, talking on the phone, IMing, emailing, and thinking — can have a creative energy of its own.

(Thanks to Techdirt for this one!)

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I'm Clive Thompson, the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (Penguin Press). You can order the book now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, Indiebound, or through your local bookstore! I'm also a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired magazine. Email is here or ping me via the antiquated form of AOL IM (pomeranian99).

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