There are two totally separate systems that govern attention:
- your ability to maintain focus on the thing (‘enhancement’)
- your ability to tune out other things (‘suppression’).
These processes are so separate, in fact, there are different networks of brain structures that carry out their respective functions, each of which is critical for attention.
Although it may seem counterintuitive, we now appreciate that focusing and ignoring are not two sides of the same coin […] it is not necessarily true that when you focus more on something, you automatically ignore everything else better.
By understanding these as separate systems, rather than seeing an inability to suppress distractions as just a side-effect of not having focused well enough, you’ll be better equipped to try and improve the situation.
This article says that it’s the suppression aspect, our ability to tune out distracting stimuli, that declines with age.
That’s a huge relief, because as a kid I used to read in the playground and not notice stuff like a basketball hitting the wall next to my head (generally thrown by a kid who was annoyed that I spent all my lunchtimes reading.)
But I can’t do that anymore, and I assumed it was just smartphones and stuff, the Age of Distraction, and I’d let that skill deteriorate through my own fault. But it probably isn’t, not totally.
So, just like if you needed reading glasses you’d just buy them and wear them, maybe now you need to remove external distractions to read a book properly, and you should go ahead and do that instead of just CONCENTRATING… HARDER…It also probably means older people are genuinely more sensitive to a cluttered room or desk than young people (rather than young people just being too lazy to tidy or whatever the prevailing theory is).
Also you already know this, but meditating will help you improve since it’s literally practising focusing, go on, take your damn medicine.
This piece was originally published in The Whippet #05 – subscribe to get the next one in your inbox!
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