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Attentiveness: Not Easy as 1, 2, uh, 3

June 25, 1989|ANN JAPENGA

Without it, you couldn't recall the ads that tell you cream cheese has half the calories of butter, recognize your own kid at day care, follow the rapid cuts in the new Bon Jovi video or juggle several telephone conversations on call-waiting. Even in ordinary situations such as traveling down the street, "you bet your life everyday that someone has enough of it," said Earl Hunt, a University of Washington in Seattle psychology professor.

Attention! That topic is emerging as a hot field of study among experts nationwide with experiments under way at universities in Oregon, Illinois, California and other states.

The flurry of research has been inspired, at least in part, by an MTV-paced culture that "makes huge demands on people's attentiveness," a trait "you can't do anything without," said Dr. Russell Schachar, a child psychiatrist in Toronto.

Defines Our Reality

Although precise definitions vary with the researcher, most agree that attentiveness is a vital information-filtering process. It lets people select their own reality and keeps them from suffocating in stimuli.

Researchers in attentiveness have taken two approaches as the information-anxious '80s end. Some of them regard excess stimuli--not an inability to pay attention--as the real problem. As Oakland psychologist Craig Brod describes this view: "Why should we try to keep up?"

But other researchers have taken another, more popular path, seeking ways people can accommodate even greater attention loads, what Brod--author of the 1984 book "Technostress"--describes as the "tune 'em up so they can keep up" approach.

In the name of productivity and efficiency, attention researchers are applying their work to designing aircraft cockpits and control panels and other military and industrial machinery. To help workers in these and other fields, they are asking questions about people's attention spans: What types are there? How do people control them? How can they malfunction?

At the University of Oregon in Eugene, Michael Posner is scrutinizing anatomical structures involved in human attention. Other researchers elsewhere are trying to figure how people simultaneously juggle noises and sights and how they relegate some tasks to a kind of automatic status, which frees their mind's attentional reserves. Researchers also have focused on a specialized kind of attentiveness--vigilance, the ability to pay attention for long periods.

Joan McDowd, a USC assistant psychology professor, is one of 20 or so researchers nationwide examining how age affects people's ability to pay attention. Her work has focused on selective attention, the ability to zero in on one task despite a swarm of distractions; the skill is thought to decline with age.

Right Brain, Left Brain

At USC, psychology professor Joseph Hellige is exploring the idea that each hemisphere--and not the total brain--draws on reserves to allow people to pay attention.

How does this work? The principle, he said, can be illustrated in an experiment in which a subject is seated at a table and asked to tap his right index finger steadily, then to speak aloud. As the subject talks, his tapping slows. That seems to be because both speech and the right hand are controlled by the brain's left hemisphere; the dual activities drain attention from the same side of the brain. In contrast, if the subject taps with his left hand while speaking, the rate of tapping stays roughly the same because the two tasks draw on different hemispheres of the brain.

Hellige's work has immediate application for anyone who has tried to navigate the freeways while simultaneously shaving and dictating dialogue for a script-in-progress. His advice would be to tackle simultaneous tasks that don't draw on the same side of the brain. Listening to the lyrics of a Michelle Shocked song while studying a corporate report, for example, likely will get you into trouble because both activities require left-hemisphere skills.

Another cruder way to maintain attention levels is to keep messages physically separate while monitoring several things simultaneously, researchers said. Helicopter traffic reporters do this in a crude way, for example, by listening at the same time in separate ears to an air controller and their radio station, researcher Hunt said.

No Attention Entropy

None of the research done, so far, shows that American society now suffers an irreversible attention deficit. The inherent capacity for people to pay attention remains what it always was, researchers say. But the task also still is partly a matter of will. And due to conditioning, people now may be willing to pay attention for only a few minutes at a time.

Teachers run up against this when they try to hold the attention of students accustomed to the pace of television, said Brod, who interviewed educators for his book. "You shorten up on the information and kids stay alert," he said, adding that, "People really want bullets" of information.

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