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Grand Rapids, MI

Embarking Blog

...on the journey towards restoration of all things

Continuous Partial Attention

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I heard a story on NPR this morning about the role of mobile devices in the medical world.  I was intrigued by a number of things. One, that kind of scared me, was this: "55% of medical technicians say they've used their cell phones during procedures, and  nearly half admitted texting." Makes me think I would want to ask the doctor to turn off his phone if I ever have a procedure. Beyond that, though, was this phrase, "continuous partial attention." Over the past several years, I've been asked if I'm ADD. Well, truth is, I've been tested, and I'm not. However, I think it would be true that our use of technological devices can create an effect not dissimilar to ADD in our lives that maybe we call CPA, Continuous Partial Attention. My wife and I have talked about this a lot. When I'm home or hanging out with her, I'm often checking my email or texts whenever my phone beeps or vibrates. The other night we were having an important conversation on the couch when my phone beeped, and I immediately interrupted the conversation rudely and checked my phone. I do this a lot. Sometimes when I'm meeting with someone over coffee, and the phone beeps, and I feel compelled to check it. It's almost become a compulsion at this point. I'm not sure I like it.

Don't get me wrong. I love technology. I love how it can help us to work faster and smarter. In fact, there's an interesting article about multi-tasking in the New York Magazine that I read the other night called "In Defense of Distraction." One of the ideas in this article is that we don't really multi-task most of the time, but instead we do "rapid shifting" in thought from one thing to another. Each time we do this, we "leak" a little "mental efficiency" with each switch. This article says that the only time we truly multi-task is when we simultaneously do things that are on different channels in the brain, using different cognitive functions.

Be that what it is, I'm realizing more and more that not only am I often creating a kind of artificial ADD into my life, but that I'm also often only partially attentive to those that I'm with, including my wife and children. We're told so often that attention matters, and that life is rich with depth, subtleties, and even the presence of God if we will only pay attention. I wonder if it's possible that my own penchant for immediate response is creating a continuous partial attention in my own life that keeping from true presence.

I'm not saying we should walk away from technology or become ludites. Not at all. I'm just wondering if there are some better ways to use technology within limits, and use them powerfully when appropriate, but pay attention, rest, and be fully attentive at the right times as well.


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