Adaptation, focus, and distraction machines

In regards to the balance of our focus in a particular activity and the distraction (attention) we need to give to sudden changes in our environment, we are not aware of how little we know.

The reality is that we are wired to focus little and pay supreme attention to any new factor of what’s happening around us, particularly giving more weight to risks. This could be seen as an evolutionary heritage of our brain when in very ancient times — and maybe in even a different form than the human one — our ancestors needed to run away from predators and interpret the signal from the environment, particularly the new ones, as primarily a threat; and then decide how to react to it.

Evolution also gave our species a brain big enough to keep social interactions that allow a group of people to assess the new stimuli and tell us whether it was a real threat, or something else that we can even take advantage of as a group. Our sense of reality became a social one, and our response to novel things more guided by the rules and culture of the group, and what collectively was seen as useful or avoidable according to social norms. Novelty and change, as part of this group reality, can then be seen more favourably. Although we still have a bias towards risk (aversion), within the group our brain feels the space necessary to interact with the changes instead of running away from them. This is a way nature allows some individuals to absorb the changes or even the shared reality of the group in a different way— impossible to happen when alone — is in these settings that some risk takers can push the boundaries of what is accepted to be right or wrong, and defy the social norms, practices, rituals, religion, or beliefs. This random mutation of how risk is perceived in some human individuals is nature provided, but also can be a result of the situation in a group environment, where a non-novelty seeking person adopts a risk prone approach as a needed agent to tackle an impending crisis or problem.

Art, ideas, craft, machines, inventions are the children of the risk takers, and the vehicles used to defy their environment. One aspect of their mindset is that they can concentrate on a task for a much longer time than other people, and at the same time be sensitive to their environment in a complete new way. The same setting or situation that don’t generate any interest on most; can be the inspiration for a revolutionary creation or idea in their minds.

Distracted as children, and easily swayed by anything surrounding them. Once older they seem not to lose this capacity, however combing it with an intense focus on a few interests. Is like among the myriad of aspects they have skills and capacity to dedicate to, some of us develop an enhanced taste for filtering only the really relevant things that will forward a piece of work. A capacity to filter information and still see the forest when under a single tree is a key aspect driving their behaviour.

The event of some individuals being able to focus extremely in a few novel ideas is key to our chances of adaptation to new problems, situations or just environment challenges. For society in general, this is no longer taking the form of mostly a natural challenge —although there is a big crisis looming in the background— but, more challenges created by our own making. Bigger cities, faster changes, less interaction between people, and more “progress” with its myriad of consequences, generate an infinite amount of problems to tackle; more than ever we are in need of people who can see things from an independent perspective and focus on a possible solution.

Undoubtedly, some of us have an easiness to focus more than other people, but most learned their way to get to intense attention in an activity. One of the hardest things to teach is how to go around finding the needle in the stack. Out of the multiple ways to tackle a problem choosing the angle that gives us the best chances to ever solve it. Almost like a Sherlock Holmes, used the right leads to form a picture of something that get us closer to the answer. If children education can provide only one thing, this would probably be the most important. Yet we seen not to see it, and spread teachings thinly in many subjects rather than give tools to the kids to follow their natural curiosity and go deep in a few of them. Only less than a century ago education was mostly not to prepare children for industry, or tick the boxes of a curriculum, it was almost completely based on providing tools of wisdom. So, they could discern by themselves, the good from the bad, the virtuous from the immoral, and to understand deeply concepts like democracy, society, and commonwealth.

For that kind of education — I will even say community living—, you need to focus and concentrate, and to the most distracted ones, teach them the importance of learning how to master their own and keep them steady on a target.

It’s interesting how with more wonderful machines providing us with constant information we seen to be undermining the fabric that generates the renewal and adaptation of our race to its biggest problems, our focus. If anything, and when compared to the first machines of industrial revolution, our latest technology is the one seeking our attention the most; one most skilled at activating our distraction instincts; and one most effectively capturing us for a pre-determined task. And yes, we still can concentrate, but is not the free wandering of the mind that we use to have before, it might be finishing a task in “world of warcraft”, finishing the next level of “candycrush” or going through the daily updates of friends in social media, while trying to clear our inbox at work.

The machine that was designed to help, is distracting from the important to concentrate on. I guess as a society with a multiplying amount of problems that need time, effort and dedication, this is not a kind of attention waste we can afford.

Technology is a key to help solve the big problems ahead of us, however the best one is the one that is invisible to us, and allow a connection to a natural mind wandering like anyone would have had a century or millennia ago. Less is more, when it comes to get our minds to produce the best they could do.

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