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Distraction

My wife and I were having breakfast one morning in the restaurant of a hotel where we were staying in Washington, D.C. The restaurant was adjacent to the hotel’s sports bar. From where I as sitting I could see a bank of large-screen TV monitors over the bar, six or seven of them, all tuned to cable sports channels. The sound was off, but closed-captioning allowed you to follow what the sportscasters were saying. Headlines scrolled across the bottom of each screen, along with scores from the previous day’s games. Viewing the monitors side by side from a distance, I was less focused on program content than on the overall visual effect, which was not unlike a row of slot machines in a casino. I am sure the effect would be the same if the TV monitors were tuned to cable news outlets or financial networks, all of which favor scrolling headlines and other eye-catching graphic elements to go with their news clips and “talking heads.”

Programmers increasingly subscribe to media critic Marvin Kitman’s theory that “if it moves, people will watch it.” Their aim always is to keep things moving – a particular challenge if the camera is pointed at a sportscaster or news anchor who is sitting at a desk, moving nothing other than his or her lips. The solution is to scroll headlines across the bottom of the screen, preferably stacked one on top of another, then cut away at the earliest opportunity so there is no time to digest anything beyond a sound bite. The programmers live in terror that the camera will linger beyond the viewer’s ever-shrinking attention span, which shrinks because it is rarely allowed to linger over a single image or idea.

Distraction has become endemic. St. Theophan the Recluse, a 19th-century Russian Orthodox monk and bishop, identified distraction as symptomatic of spiritual emptiness. To fill this void, Theophan wrote, “the sinner is continually troubled about learnedness, the possession of many things, and the desire for many pleasures. He amuses himself, he possesses, he questions. He goes around in circles his entire life.” Theophan, of course, knew nothing of 24-hour news cycles, much less tweets, texting, computer apps, Facebook or the myriad other mass distractions of the electronic age. But he would certainly recognize their seductive intent “to prolong and deepen a person's involvement in them.” As Theophan expressed it, “Being in living communion with this entire world, each sinner is caught up in its thousandfold net, and is so deeply entangled in it that it is invisible to him.”

There are only so many hours in the day, so you would think we are rapidly reaching a saturation point in our capacity for distraction. However, many people have resorted to multitasking to allow them to pursue more than one activity at the same time. The term “multitasking” is borrowed from computer science and refers to a microprocessor’s apparent ability to perform several tasks simultaneously. As it turns out, however, a microprocessor actually performs multiple tasks in rapid sequence, with speed measured in gigahertz, or billions of cycles per second. Humans are likewise capable of performing only one task at a time, and their speed is not measured in gigahertz or anything approaching billions of cycles per second. In fact, most of the research on human multitasking suggests there is a pronounced drop-off in efficiency and effectiveness when we try to do two or more things at once. The brain simply can’t focus on more than one activity at a time, so we take longer to complete each task and make more mistakes. This is why there are now laws against people who text while driving.

My wife and I were staying at that hotel in Washington, D.C. because I was on the board of the Alzheimer’s Association in Connecticut and was attending the national organization’s annual public policy forum. On the final day of the forum we trekked up to Capitol Hill to lobby members of Congress for more medical research funding to fight the disease. As it happened, my lobbying partner on this particular occasion was a former computer engineer named Sid who had early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. I had gotten to know Sid a little bit on a similar expedition to the state capitol in Hartford only a week earlier. He was an inspiration to me. He had been diagnosed with the disease the year before, at age 59, after several years of mounting difficulties functioning at home and at work. He would tell people, “My brain’s broken,” but his family and even his doctors refused at first to believe someone so young could be afflicted with “an old person’s disease.” As one might image, the eventual diagnosis, when it came, was devastating. But it was not unexpected. Sid is highly intelligent and by this time had already researched the disease. He knew that in a relatively small number of cases Alzheimer’s symptoms first appear when people are still in the 40s or 50s. He also knew that the disease is invariably fatal.

After some dark days following his diagnosis, Sid determined that he would try to “stay in the game” for as long as possible. As a systems engineer, he understood how memory worked in computers, and he set about trying to “reprogram” his brain. By this time the disease had affected his spatial perception, and he had to teach himself how to perform even simple tasks, such as using a screwdriver again. He began taking a medication called Namenda that cleared out some of the mental cobwebs. He also got in touch with a local cognitive health center and took a course in “mental aerobics” designed for people in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease. Sid is realistic about his long-term prospects. Although he has regained some cognitive function, he knows that he will never get better. As an IT team leader, he had been adept at juggling many tasks at once, something he will never be able to do again. “I can’t multitask,” he said. “I have to plan out what I am going to do, and follow it step by step. I can only operate in the now.”

If you did not know that Sid had Alzheimer’s disease, you would never suspect he was cognitively impaired. He is intelligent and articulate. He flew down to Washington by himself, and even managed the city’s subway system on his own. He may be impaired, but he has learned a few tricks that, so far at least, have allowed him to stay in the game. He knows enough to stay focused on the task at hand, and he never allows himself to become distracted. St. Theophan would be proud.

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