By the Bye: A Defense of Distraction

The past 12 or so hours have been very distracting–my focus on reading things like Proctor and Johnson’s Attention: Theory and Practice and Laurence Sterne’s much earlier Tristram Shandy has been repeatedly derailed by MSU’s sudden win over Michigan. While this has been annoying in terms of productivity, it actually relates really well to the concepts of attention, distraction, and perception that this week brings us to. What does it mean to pay attention to something in terms of cognition, and how much can we pay attention to at once? How are attention and perception related to each other? Why does any of this matter?

In The Principles of Psychology from 1890, William James defines attention as the mind drawing specific objects out of a host of other ones: “[Attention] implies withdrawal from some things in order to deal effectively with others, and is a condition which has a real opposite in the confused, dazed, scatterbrained state which in French is called distraction, and Zerstreutheit in German” (404). James argues throughout his chapter on attention that attention necessarily excludes or subordinates the sensing and cognition of some stimuli–in other words, focusing shoves some stimuli to the periphary or even out of the picture entirely. What I find so interesting here, however, is how distraction–normally presented as attention’s opposite–is referred to negatively or dismissively. Distraction is “confused”, “dazed”, and “scatterbrained”, and a truly great education would involve minimizing it and training the mind to always return to attention (424). Distraction is the not-important and insignificant, attention is the important and significant.

It would be easy to assume that this view of distraction has more to do with the values and attitudes of when James is writing, but the devaluation of distraction persists in modern studies of attention as well. In Attention: Theory and Practice (2004), Addie Johnson and Robert Proctor detail the history of attention studies from philosophy to psychology, and they begin to do so by introducing the example of an aircraft pilot. A pilot must focus on the task at hand by navigating a plethora of stimuli available to them, correctly deciding which information is important in order to successfully fly the plane (1-2). Here again we have mention of distraction as the negative–that which is unimportant and must be excluded in favor of what should be paid attention to. This makes sense from the perspective of performing a task; after all, paying attention to everything is not possible and in the case of flying a plane is actually really dangerous. So it seems logical to want to maximize attention and minimize distraction in order to get things done successfully. Still–doesn’t distraction itself have a role in this? Are there ways in which distraction is not negative, but is rather generative?

Tristram Shandy certainly thinks so. In Volume I, Tristram makes a defense of his constant digressions in his narrative by claiming that the digressions are actually crucial to the continuing of the story: “In a word, my work is digressive, and it is progressive too,––and at the same time” (52). Tristram will go on to say (for what is his narrative if not itinerant) that digressions are “the life, the soul of reading” (52). At first glance these remarks might appear simply as weak justification for a truly bizarre narrative–the musings of a silly gentleman. However this passage might be the closest thing a reader of Tristram Shandy gets to a real point. The narrative of the novel would be fundamentally different if its events and characters were arranged otherwise, and certainly the characterization of Tristram would altogether change. The digressions of the novel and the distractions they pose are crucial to accessing the mind of Tristram and gaining perspective on the events of his life–something we have to assume will become important *somewhere* down the line. Furthermore a reframing of Tristram Shandy would diminish its critical power. Without its ability to upend traditional forms and expectations, the novel becomes just another example of social drama and the usual narrative in the period. Distraction in the form of digression is thus quite generative in Tristram Shandy, and one could even say (as Tristram does) that the focus and attention of the novel are built on it.

While attention might seem better than distraction in terms of accomplishing mental and physical tasks, I would argue that attention is not possible without distraction. Rather distraction is what draws attention along, allowing it to focus on new and different things. As a result, distraction is generative in that it provides perspective and direction otherwise lacking in attention. I cannot help but think of serendipity here as well–it seems that emergence, innovation, and discovery must always contain some element of distraction by way of drawing off from a given focus and giving it a new route. So it is never the case that we can simply maximize attention and minimize distraction in order to gain knowledge–the two need each other in order to progress.

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