7/30/2009

Attention isn't one size fits all: hyperfocusers and multitaskers think differently

I'd like to see researchers identify different attentional profiles, rather than treating attention as a one-size-fits all phenomenon. What do I mean by "attentional profiles?" Consider the strengths and weaknesses of Dr. Gray and Claudia*, who have opposite profiles.

Hyperfocus: Dr. Gray
Dr. Gray is a professor at a major research university. Every morning, he spends several hours writing. To outside observers without similar work habits, his routine seems impossibly picky. First, he will only work in the morning, because this is when he is most productive and focused. If he works later in the day, he says, he won't have any creative ideas. Second, he will not start until he has had at least 8 hours of sleep, for the same reason. He works in a separate room of the house with his door shut, never listening to music or the radio, not surfing the internet, and not taking phone calls. His family knows not to try to talk to him during his writing time, and if they are talking loudly in the next room he will sometimes come out to ask them to be quieter. As a result, he works in absolute silence, with no interruptions.

What are the results of this demanding routine? He describes a state of hyperfocus like what Mihalyi Csikszentmihaly calls "flow." He is aware only of what he is writing. He will start out writing about one thing but what he has just written often calls to mind new ideas unrelated to what he was planning. Often, what started out as the introduction to a planned book has become the whole book. This state is like "flow" in that it is highly pleasurable, and he loses all self-consciousness while becoming hyper-aware of what he is doing. This is the state romantic poets describe as "inspiration": a totally different state of consciousness where ideas seem to come effortlessly, as if given by the gods. The silence and lack of interruption allow him to reach this state, and interruptions snap him out of it. When he is interrupted, it takes up to 20 minutes for him to get back into flow and remember what he was thinking when he was interrupted, and sometimes he does not succeed at all.

Dr. Gray's need to focus intensely on one thing is at its most extreme when he's writing, and it's there that he gets the most benefit from it. But it shows up in all areas of his life. If he is talking to someone and somebody else tries to start a conversation at the same time about a completely different topic (as typically happens during home life), he will say he couldn't process what either person said. He will ask them to speak one at a time, often not speaking to the second person at all until the discussion with the first has been resolved. Socially, he shines one on one and in small groups as an attentive, witty conversationalist. But he fares less well with the fragmented nature of conversation in large gatherings, especially when there's a lot of background noise. He rarely listens to background music because it takes away his focus.

Dr. Gray realizes that his hyperfocus sometimes frustrates others and makes daily tasks take more time to complete. But he credits his creativity as a researcher and teacher to it.

Multitasking: Claudia
Claudia, on the other hand, can often be seen listening to music while surfing the web or checking email while completing an online course while engaging in several instant messaging conversations. As a child, she would read while playing game boy while watching TV while listening to music. In high school, Claudia played several instruments, took many AP and honors-level distance learning classes, and ran--not volunteered in, actually ran--theater programs for students. Meanwhile, she kept up an active social life and traveled continuously. She resembled the Energizer Bunny no matter how little sleep she got. While Claudia often felt stressed from being perpetually late to one activity or another, she seemed to thrive on the nonstop busyness and the multitasking it required. Far from needing to tune out noise, she WAS the noise--constantly talking, yelling across the house to her parents, singing, or playing music loudly. Claudia dabbles in writing, but she has never completed any stories or poems and is not satisfied with what she has written. She is highly productive, but not particularly creative.

Where Attentional Profiles Succeed and Fail
Both Dr. Gray and Claudia are highly successful. Dr. Gray is one of the top researchers in the world in his field and a recipient of many awards both for teaching and research. He is one of the most popular teachers at the prestigious university where he works. His ideas have challenged and inspired many inside and outside of his discipline since the beginning of his career. Claudia is a reigning world-champion musician and a student at an Ivy League college. She is the ideal that colleges want to admit and students want to be--she does it all and she's good at all of it, and she still manages an active social life.

Currently, American culture values people like Claudia, because they can produce a large amount of output in a short amount of time. They are perceived to be the most efficient workers and the most dependable coworkers, family members and friends.

Often, Claudia and others like her live up to this image. But their neurological profile need not always lead to success. Claudia could succeed at everything she attempted because she was intelligent, well educated, and affluent, with a supportive family. Others with her profile could also feel comfortable doing a lot at once, but produce much lower quality work. The downsides of this profile are distractibility, irresponsibility, shallowness (you can only go so deep without focusing), lack of creativity, and burnout.

Dr. Gray's profile is probably very common among highly creative people. That does not mean that everyone with this profile will be highly creative, especially in a society that values multitasking to the extent that ours currently does. Dr. Gray, as a professor, has been able to arrange his schedule around his focusing needs. Not everyone can do this.

Also, the need to hyperfocus can be a problem when people are doing things outside their areas of talent and interest. Dr. Gray benefits from it in his research and teaching, but it definitely hurts him when he tries to efficiently run errands, keep up with his email, keep the house in good repair, and sundry other daily tasks. With no option other than to hyperfocus, lots of "brainless" activities like these drain his mental energy, making it harder to accomplish what he cares about.

For people like Dr. Gray, there may also be a conflict between having a lot of interests and needing to focus and go into depth. Since I share Dr. Gray's attentional profile and have a lot of intellectual interests, I am constantly caught between breadth and depth. As I decide with whom to take independent study so I can prepare for my career as a researcher, I am torn between learning a lot of research techniques from a lot of professors vs. focusing on one or two projects with just one or two of them. I have loved to write since childhood, but I have produced very little output because I have been overwhelmed by having literally 30 or 40 story ideas at once, all of which seem equally worth pursuing. This would be another example of how hyperfocus can make someone less productive.

Dr. Gray's profile may also be associated with certain sorts of sensory processing problems. I have known people like Dr. Gray who are slow readers and have trouble "scanning" for items in a fridge or pantry. When they read a book or website, they have to read word-by-word; they can't skim. When looking through the fridge, they can't "skim" it for that jar of pickles; they have to look at every bit of the fridge. These people share Dr. Gray's attentional profile. One can guess at the connection: scanning problems are the visual equivalent of hyperfocusing. Moreover, Dr. Gray himself appears to have difficulty tuning out sound in particular. This would make multitasking more difficult even if he had an affinity for it.

I'm not sure whether the literature on attention goes into attentional profiles like this, since I'm fairly new to the field. But if they don't, they should. Hyperfocused people can be highly creative and multitaskers can get staggering amounts accomplished. But when hyperfocused people are treated like inferior multitaskers and multitaskers are treated like inferior hyperfocusers, neither of them turn out very productive. Society needs both sorts of people, and it's important to learn how we can develop the talents and overcome the weaknesses of each.

SUMMARY
Hyperfocused: natural state is focusing intensely on one thing at once; flow state is natural and frequently experienced; needs lots of sleep; highly creative; has trouble multitasking; may have sensory processing difficulties; attention is spotlight
Multitaskers: natural state is multitasking; flow state less natural and may rarely be experienced; may need little sleep; not particularly creative; excellent at multitasking; likely has normal or good sensory processing; attention is lightbulb

FUTURE DIRECTIONS...
-Multitaskers can look like they have ADD, and so can hyperfocused people whose environments don't let them focus.
-Could the hyperfocused profile lead to context-blindness, and could this context-blindness cause Autistic-spectrum symptoms? Thoughts on caetextia.

FURTHER READING
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (1990). Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience.
http://caetextia.com/

*names have been changed