Opinion / Op-Ed Contributors

Learning to cope with distraction

By Ruo Chen (China Daily) Updated: 2011-06-23 07:55

According to a survey conducted by China Youth Daily last week, of the 1,357 office workers questioned, 69 percent said that they could not finish tasks at work on time, while 73 percent said distraction was a serious problem for them. One of the main reasons for their distraction, they said, is the mass of information available while they are doing their jobs.

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Truly we are spending too much time following the latest news on twitter, or chatting aimlessly with some distant friend via MSN or OICQ, or simply clicking the news pop-ups that continually emerge. Surely such multitasking diverts our attention and thus lowers our efficiency.

And it is not only a problem for workers. The distraction caused by the flood of information and communication is affecting every-one in every aspect of their daily life.

As early as 1971, 20 years before the birth of the Internet and several years before a company named Google was registered, the US sociologist Herbert Simon said: "A wealth of information creates a poverty of attention."

He was right. Surrounded by too much information, we waste too much attention on junk or useless information. Just as Nicolas Carl wrote in his book The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, we are becoming more and more efficient at browsing information, but losing the ability to concentrate, analyze and criticize.

However, is distraction necessarily bad? Tyler Cowen in his book, Create Your Own Economy, argues that multitasking is not a bad thing, because we can increase efficiency by handling several small tasks at the same time, like browsing news while chatting with someone online. And such abilities can be trained and developed. More importantly, such multitasking can keep us interested in these small activities, which might be otherwise neglected.

Attention is a complex process, involving emotion, memory, identity, wish fulfillment and motive. But the brain distinguishes itself from other organs by learning from experience, which is known as neural plasticity: the ability of neural circuits to undergo changes in function or organization due to previous activity

Today the Internet is entering every part of our lives; no one seems able to crawl out of the information ocean. So maybe it is time we started thinking more about adapting to our cyber world?

In my opinion, our ability to concentrate on one complex task is gradually being eroded by the tide of information, but at the same time, we are also gaining another ability, that of organizing seemingly disparate pieces of information. That's only possible in this age of the Internet.

At the same time, it is hard to imagine the next generation, which is growing up with the Internet, will lose the ability to concentrate forever. Distraction and concentration are contradictory, but both are necessary.

It will take time for the mind to become accustomed to concentrating amid the incessant rush of information, but it will happen. We are just starting to adapt to the Information age.

The author is a commentator with China Youth Daily.

(China Daily 06/23/2011 page10)

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