Driven to Distraction?


preached last week on expecting the unexpected, how we can hold expectations about the future but need to be willing to reassess those expectations in light of the march of events. We can’t make the world conform to our expectations, but we can avoid investing so much in those expectations that we are thrown for a loop.

Today I want to get at much the same thing by another route. Our news media and social media feed us numerous stories of amazing complexity, and characters who do not act as we might expect them to act. And one of the most distressing aspects of this is that we don’t know what stories deserves our deepest attention. We are often presented with stories which outrage us, but suspect that those stories may be generated to distract us from other things that are happening.

Worse, many of us suspect that our minds have somehow deteriorated through the great information tsunami that greets us every time we boot up one of our devices. We are less and less able to read all the way through a story, much less pick up a book and follow it to the end. There are so many loose threads to the stories that we despair of ever being able to weave them into anything coherent. When we finally get around to reading that opinion piece we set aside last week, some word in the first paragraph will remind us of a song we used to sing thirty years ago, and we just have to look that one up first, and that leads to another song and an hour later the piece we were going to read is still unread. In short, we feel driven to distraction. It’s like we and everybody we know has a case of Attention Deficit Disorder or ADD, or ADHD as it is called now.

What is distraction? It is a diversion of someone’s attention. It’s a common enough occurrence, because attention itself is so fragile. But the fact that we are all distractable means that distraction is an available strategy in all kinds of conflict.

We can see it at work in the world of nature. Those of you who were here last week may remember that I opened the service with a poem by Wendell Berry called the Mad Farmer’s Liberation Front. The poet advised us to resist the expectations of the commercial system and to be our own people. At the end he said, “Be like the fox who makes more tracks than necessary, often in the wrong direction.”

If the fox is making tracks in the wrong direction, he’s doing that to distract the animal or person who may be hunting him. Similarly, a killdeer plover will fake a broken wing to draw a predator’s attention away from her nest.

It’s been said that life in the state of nature was lived between two goals: getting lunch for yourself and avoiding being lunch for someone else. In this kind of world, distraction is one of the tools of the prey species against the predators.

Military planners down through the ages have known the value of distraction. After the Greeks had laid siege to the city of Troy for ten years without success, one day the entire Greek army appeared to sail away, leaving at the city gates a wooden horse. The horse was the symbol of the city of Troy. The Trojans put on a victory celebration and brought the wooden horse into the center of town. But the horse had Greek soldiers hidden within it, including Odysseus, and after the Trojans had passed out from their celebrations, the Greeks came out of the horse, opened the gates of the city and allowed their armies in to take it.

Modern-day weapons systems use distractions called decoys. Anti-aircraft missiles are designed to seek the heat generated by a jet aircraft and blow up upon contact, but the defense against these is small decoy dummy rockets which generate heat and distract the anti-aircraft missile from the real plane. Some other systems generate passive flakes of metal foil to foil photo reconnaissance.

I am not an avid football fan, but from what I know of the game, it uses a lot of distraction as a strategy. In a typical play, the offense will send several potential receivers downfield, and then the quarterback will throw to the one who is open or elect to pass off to another back or run it himself. The multiple receivers make it difficult for the defense to know where the ball will end up. The quarterback indeed may fake a throw to one receiver and throw to another.

Hockey players do a maneuver called a deke, short for decoy, where they feint going one way and then go another.

In debate, in politics, in legal arguments, distraction is a ready strategy. The trial lawyer is taught early that if the law is against you, yell about the evidence, and if the evidence is against you, yell about the law and if both law and evidence are against you, just yell. Or wrap yourself in the flag.

And if distraction is part of the story in nature, in war, in sport, in debate, it is almost the whole story in an activity which has been going on at this Meeting House all summer long for the last ten years: a magic show would simply not be possible if the magician could not distract our attention skillfully at just the right moment. How does he DO that?

The examples I have given are what we might call normal distractions. They assume a mind which is capable of paying attention, and in an adversary situation, a skillful adversary can redirect that attention so that a key point is missed.

There is a famous psychological experiment on attention. A scene is set before an audience in which three people in black shirts and three people in white shirts passing several basketballs around. You ask the audience to count how many times a basketball is passed by a person in a black shirt. In the middle of the basketball passing, without any warning or mention of him, a guy in a gorilla suit walks through the scene. Half of the people who observe this scene did not see the guy in the gorilla suit,

What that says is that you can’t pay attention to everything all the time. If you’re trying to count passed basketballs, you may miss a gorilla or two. Let’s keep that in mind as we think about distraction.

Our local public radio station, WCAI, has a weekly program about science, technology and culture called Innovation Hub. Yesterday’s program was an interview of a couple of professors, Susan Matt and Luke Fernandez from Weber State University in Utah, who had written a book called “Bored, Lonely, Angry, Stupid: Feelings About Technology From the Telegraph to Twitter.”

There were three takeaways from the research:[1]

First, solitude used to be regarded as a way to connect to the divine, not a sign of being a social outcast, according to Matt and Fernandez. So what caused the change? They argue that as our ability to communicate improved - with inventions like the telegraph, television and social media - we’ve felt increasingly compelled to be surrounded by stimulation, which often causes us to feel even lonelier.

Second, as the role of religion has waned in the lives of many Americans, and the influence of tech has grown, we’ve come to believe that our own power is vast (rather than small and meek, as preachers once argued). Fernandez and Matt say that this has led us to overestimate our abilities; for example, we think we can do everything at once (which, according to the research, is a myth), be connected all the time, and have hundreds of friends. Matt and Fernandez believe that these unrealistic expectations feed into our feelings of loneliness and boredom.

Third, the industrial revolution led to the development of repetitive jobs, particularly with the advent of the assembly line. Matt and Fernandez argue that, around this time, people’s tolerance for boredom plummeted, leading to a greater demand for entertainment. In today’s world, with nearly limitless content to consume, they say that this demand has created an oversupply of instant gratification, potentially impacting our ability to focus and make long-term decisions.

This is a rich analysis. In terms of solitude, I have preached before on the difference between solitude and loneliness. New technologies, from the telegraph to twitter, allow us to communicate with individuals across long distances. I can visit with my grandsons on Facetime when I can’t fly to England to be with them in person. But whether this makes me feel more connected than my grandfather felt in his day depends on what I have come to expect from life.

We all want friends. Facebook tells me I have over two thousand of them. But they are not all coming to my funeral or even my next birthday party. I think my mother in the pre-social media age might have known 400 people on a first-name basis. Was her life richer?

For the industrial revolution brought prosperity to the upper classes, who found themselves with time on their hands. Thomas Jefferson, in a letter to his daughter in 1787, decried the soul-deadening aspects of idleness, which he called ennui, and advised her to be always busy and productive. We didn’t start using the word boredom until the middle of the nineteenth century, and by then boredom was not just a problem for the idle rich, it was a problem for the industrial workers made to toil 12-hour days doing repetitive work in factory or mill.

The remedy for boredom was entertainment, and nineteenth century Americans knew how to entertain themselves. They gathered in parlors and church halls for amateur musicals and dances and once in a while could see a traveling minstrel show or even classical performance. But then technology gave us the phonograph and the radio, which allowed professional music around the house all day. For many of us, commercial music displaced the music that we made ourselves.

Music, variety shows, professional entertainment, what next? Nashville, Hollywood, the networks catered to our insatiatable desires for amusements. Our expectations soared. We wanted to get to that technological nirvana where the entertainment we desired would be instantly available anywhere we went, and we have almost reached that place. I listened to the show about media from a device in my pocket sending a signal to earbuds in my ears as I walked a trail in Nickerson State Park.

The media will sell us what we want. We have voted with our dollars to have more and more amusement. So serious public analysis gives way to the news as entertainment or as they now call it, infotainment, and we start electing actors and other media stars to government positions. It is ironic that in the famous July phone call between President Trump and Ukrainian President Zalensky, you had a former reality TV star talking to a former comedian.

I have talked to this point as if distraction was just a question for the mind, for the intellect, but the mind is not separate from the emotions. The political troll does not just distract our attention with shiny objects, but deliberately sows stories which put a false spin on issues which some portion of the public cares about.

Two items arose in the news last week which might not seem so important in the rush of things but are significant. The first is that the State Department official inquiry has cleared Hilary Clinton of the charge of systemic and widespread misuse of emails while she was Secretary of State. The second is that the Senate Intelligence Committee has issued a bipartisan report affirming that there was in fact massive Russian interference in the 2016 US election. Both of these sets of findings may get ignored in the wash of other news, and the most frustrating thing is that there will be plenty of people who go on believing the disinformation stories that these reports rebut.

Yes, I think we are all distractable now. There is so much more content on offer. But I don’t think we are losing our minds. And while the politics of the day push the limits of what we have lived through up to now, and while there’s plenty to worry about, and plenty to disagree about, you can find amid the noise, some voices that make sense and can make sense of the swirling maelstrom.

To this point I have been talking about whether the country as a whole is getting distracted, whether ADHD is becoming universal, whether we’re all being driven to distraction. My answer is no. Yet ADHD is a recognized mental disorder, and the statistics say it is growing among children. 6.4 million children ages 4-17 are diagnosed with ADHD, which is a 42% increase in the last 8 years. It is mainly a childhood disorder, but 4% of adults also have the diagnosis.

Yesterday I attended the Meeting House’s Saturday meditation group for the first time. We heard a wonderful video talk on meditation by a Buddhist monk, and then we meditated for about 20 minutes while Jan Perry made her singing bowls sing.

The monk made the point that there were three things happening in meditation. First you are given a focus for your meditation; usually, in beginning meditation, this is your breath. You will start out paying attention to the selected object of focus. Then at a certain point, you will notice that you are no longer paying attention to that object of focus, but you mind is elsewhere. That noticing of the wandering is the second thing. And then the third thing is when you bring your mind back to the original focus.

He said a lot of people think that when they catch their mind wandering they have failed meditation. But he thinks that’s when they succeed. They succeed in affirming that they understand how the mind works: it goes off on its own all the time, and in meditation you learn, not to corral it and keep it from wandering, but to bring it back when it does wander.

Some may think of the mind as a storyteller who starts at the beginning and proceeds logically to the end, telling the story as economically as possible. And that’s how people used to write interior monologues, as logical essays on a subject. But in the early twentieth century, William James pointed out that the way the mind worked in practice, was not by logical exposition but by what he called “streams of consciousness.” Several authors set out to try to write prose the way the mind actually thinks, jumping from one subject to the next every phrase. Joyce’s novel Ulysses is told in stream of consciousness.

So the mind works in random associations and all advertising mediums before social media could not connect effectively. They might try to sell you shampoo by knowing that you had a desire to present a pleasing appearance to those in whom you were sexually interested, but this didn’t distinguish you from anyone else watching that TV show. The computer algorithms which make social media run are individuated; they quickly learn from your use of the media what you are interested in, and as you use the media, ads and other content are constantly popping up to try to claim your attention. Moreover, the algorithms give you the sense of impacting your social status through likes and reposts.

Yes, we are all distractable these days. But distraction and focus are two sides fo the same coin. Just as a meditator can develop the ability to sit quietly for up to an hour, you can develop focus on the things you want to focus on. But I also think that the mind needs times of aimless wandering. That’s when connections are made under the surface. When I am stuck on a crossword puzzle or any other mental problem, I lay it aside and go for a walk. And while I am on break, my logical left brain turns the problem over to my free-association right brain and by the time I return from my walk the answers are somehow leaping out at me from the page.

Yes, we are all distractable these days, and we are also lucky to live in such interesting times.


Reading for “Driven to Distraction”

From James Joyce, Ulysses

“A quarter after what an unearthly hour I suppose they’re just getting up in China now combing out their pigtails for the day well soon have the nuns ringing the angelus they’ve nobody coming in to spoil their sleep except an odd priest or two for his night office or the alarm lock next door at cockshout clattering the brain out of itself let me see if I can doze off 1 2 3 4 5 what kind of flowers are those they invented like the stars the wallpaper in Lombard street was much nicer the apron he gave me was like that something only I only wore it twice better lower this lamp and try again so that I can get up early.” (1922, rpt. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1986, p. 642).


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Unitarian Universalist

Meeting House of Chatham

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