Types of Attention: A Focus on “Divided Attention”
“Alertness” is defined by the Cambridge Dictionary Online (2022) as “the state of being ready to see, understand, and act in a particular situation.” When this idea of being alert is applied to cognition, many challenges face the ability of the human mind to call attention. Although several types of attention have so far been identified by researchers, the concept of “divided attention” presents the greatest challenge to alertness.
Unlike other types of attention, “divided attention” is an act of practice that leads to the by-product of automatic processing (Goldstein, 2018). The idea that one performs the task that has been learned and practiced brings to question the development of current automatic processing with perspective to the use of cell phones and automation bias. While sustained attention for periods of time may be possible through attentional capture (Goldstein, 2018), the quality of attention weakens over time, reaching a maximum functionality up to about thirty (30) minutes of focus (LaBrie, 2014). This leads to the “Stroop effect” in which both relevant and irrelevant stimuli are caught in a competition to process as the response (Goldstein, 2018). One suggestion in the “degrees of freedom” theory which “underlies fatigue” is the “redistribution principle” that hypothesizes an individual seeks the path of least resistance when processing information to find a low-entropy solution to accomplish the task at hand (Guastello, p. 222, 2013). On the other hand, Guastello (2013) also suggests that “if a loss of total entropy was occurring, however, the individual would not only be trying to regroup internal resources, but also be reducing the need to respond to the total complexity of task situation and gravitating instead toward easier task options, simplification of the gas, and other ways of ‘cutting corners’ or just stopping the task” (p. 222). This alternating selection creates a competition for information; yet, the information received must be of value to return positive attention.
One of the main characteristics of “divided attention” that lends susceptibility to alertness is not only the ability to conform to the process but also an inability to exit the process. Default mode network (DMN) activity is associated with mind-wandering which has benefits regarding memory, problem-solving, and creativity leading to future creative enhancements (Goldstein, p. 115, 2018). Attention is created by competition, but the energy loop is not self-sustaining; therefore, the competition results in an addiction based on a need for acceptance that is realized through positive recognition by a social network. The “feature integration theory” supports that a lack of focused attention inhibits proper feature assignment (Goldstein, 2018), but focus itself whether sustained or selective does not elicit processing. Connection of thought must occur in order to bind the memory which can be distorted by alternating distractions of top-down functions. As a result, the environmental conditions of each person’s experience play a role in the saliency of the stimuli based on the bottom-up processing cues that lead to binding. An addiction to the flow of information from mobile devices overrides the ability to leave the influx and lowers the default mode network (DMN) activity that ultimately fuels original thought generation.
Addiction to mobile devices is a result of competitive operant conditioning which leads to lower capabilities in attended processing causing external and internal dangers such as automation bias (which could affect the functionality of the discrimination index), traffic accidents, learning deficiencies, and other distorted social perceptions. The ability to utilize “divided attention” is a precious characteristic of human capacity that should be fueled by environmental interactions that stimulate bottom-up processes including pressure recognition and depth perception rather than static images from visual displays resting in hand-held devices of the general population. Learning to think is a result of interaction rather than entertainment or stimulation perpetuated by low-load tasks such as visual searches subject to divided attention. “It is important to realize that we don’t need to be aware of all the details of what is happening around us” (Goldstein, p.118, 2018). If the flow of information does not stop, how does the human mind cope?
Is it possible that the automatic processes being developed now are different from those that developed without the integration of mobile devices in daily life? With “divided attention” being a combination of incoming stimuli based on salience that can be affected by a range of issues from attentional warping to inattentional blindness, along with an ability to focus sustained internal attention, it is important to note that distractions can hinder performance. The integration of new technology through cell phones and the Internet “can also have negative effects on many other aspects of behavior” (Goldstein, p 113, 2018). Goldstein (2018) also points out that a recent study by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety on cognitive distractions in automobiles suggests “too much information and entertainment isn’t a good thing” (p. 113). It seems the “Age of Information” has become “The Cognitive Crush.”
Will a consistent flow of information become expected at a top-down processing level, and if so, how does this affect the ventral attention network? Being shown images without reference doesn’t build effective connectivity leading to thought generation; yet, the attentional capture movement of the mobile device industry preys on the quality of “divided attention” to force an information crush that creates a competition to be the first to know nothing.
The question must be asked: how is this addiction to “divided attention” affecting the future of the human experience?
Alertness. ALERTNESS | definition in the Cambridge English Dictionary. (2022). Retrieved November 6, 2022, from https://dictionary.cambridge.org/us/dictionary/english/alertness
Goldstein, E. B. (2018). Cognitive psychology: connecting mind research and everyday experience (5th ed.).92-127. Wadsworth Cengage Learning.
Guastello, S. J. (2013). Human factors engineering and ergonomics: A systems approach, second edition.202-222. Taylor & Francis Group.
LaBrie, R. (2014). The Cognitive Neuroscience of Sustained Attention and Classical Mindfulness: Volume 1. YouTube. Retrieved November 6, 2022, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JusQmWAWc_I.