I’m not a particular fan of American Football, but it offers a great metaphor for the brain’s inhibitory system, so I’m suspending judgement for the next 600 words. Anyway Hunter S Thompson liked it so it can’t be all bad.
When we’re trying to focus on something – trying to focus on somebody talking to us, or on the radio news, or on the page of a novel – we’re expending mental energy in two ways.
The first effort is the actual focusing. Successful focusing means that blood is flowing to specific parts of the brain where neurons have been activated, and thinking is happening.
The second effort, and perhaps the less fashionable part of thinking, is the blocking out of distractions. This is dirty work.
This is where gridiron comes in.
The glamorous bit of American Football is when a quarterback receives the ball, looks around, considers the best pass, and delivers a 70-yard throw which increases his value by another $10 million dollars (all figures are approximate, I’m a cricket fan).
But how did the quarterback manage to find that second or two to look around, to consider his next move – to think – when several people were trying to knock him over, or to “sack” him, in the jargon?
This is where the Offensive Tackles are so important. These are the guys – 6 foot 4 inches, 20 stone plus – who will protect the quarterback’s thinking time through, well, through a combination of fast footwork and brute force.
In the brain, the Quarterback-and-Offensive-Tackles partnership is undertaken by the Attentional Control system. One part of the system concentrates on processing the desired information (handling the ball), while the other concentrates on blocking any distractions (flattening opponents). And just like gridiron, the repeated strain of blocking distractions will lead to bruises, fatigue and a drop in performance. More of the undesired stimuli (opposing players) will start to get through.
In brain terms this deterioration is referred to as Directed Attention Fatigue. Your concentration levels depend on blocking out, as much as on focusing in, and it’s the former – the inhibitory system – that gets tired first.
The strain on the inhibitory system is exacerbated by certain factors. Your Offensive Tackles will be particularly bashed and bruised if they have to block lots of highly intrusive stuff such as sirens, crying children, hunger, other people’s mobile phone conversations, pain, strong emotions and stressful thoughts.
Of course they can also be highly effective – we can all think of occasions when we achieved such a pitch of concentration that we lost all track of time – probably helped by a quiet environment with few distractions, a strong feeling of interest in what we were doing, and a cup of coffee. One of the most famous experiments on concentration showed that you can block out the most ridiculous things if you’re concentrating hard on something else.
I’ve also managed to conduct my own private test in a local cafe by nicking a corner of my daughter’s Raw Vegan Blackberry Cake (this is Brighton), without her noticing, because she was fully absorbed in drawing a sketch of a woman wearing novelty reindeer antlers. Normally she would have stabbed me.
Anyway, what’s the point? In recent blogs I’ve been looking at attention spans and learning. I think we have a problem of over-optimism. By “we” I mean learners as well as the designers of learning. We do our best to concentrate, but we experience multiple distractions which are forever tugging at our sleeves for attention, and we are prone to self-referential processing (aka daydreaming).
We also have a blocking-out system which is powerful but tires fast. In the next blog I want to look at how fast.
(For interest: there are links between the concepts of Directed Attention Fatigue and Ego Depletion, and with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder as well. There was an interesting Slate article on the weaknesses of the science behind ego depletion last year – in fact on the general weaknesses of the literature on psychology. One of the best things I’ve read in recent years has been Jon Ronson’s The Psychopath Test, with its disturbing history of the classification and medicalisation of certain conditions – highly recommended.)
picture credit: Google Images