The Rise and Fall of Attention – a Clinical Observation

Working MemoryAccording to Time-Based Resource Sharing (TBRS) model advanced by Pierre Barrouillet and Valérie Camos (2015), the “storage capacity” of our working memory “systematically varies as a linear function of the cognitive load of concurrent processing, a relation that we describe as the law relating processing to storage.” In plain language, we tap into the same reservoir of cognitive resources while performing various tasks at the same time. Our memory that is required to perform each task would inevitably compromised since the amount of cognitive resources, mainly manifested in our attention, have been diverted. A safe bet is that if you keep ruminating the meaning of TBRS as quoted in the beginning of this paragraph while reading what I’m going to say next, you probably won’t remember the story as much as you skip this paragraph altogether. In short, multitasking is not a good idea. Focused attention is better than being distracted.

WillpowerAlthough the theory does not sound too exciting or innovative as it resonates pretty much with what our conventional wisdom has informed us, its practical value seems to have been overlooked until substantial research focusing on working memory, executive function, and even will power emerged in the mid-twentieth century. As social psychologist Roy Baumeister, along with John Tierney (2011), concluds:

The experiments [on will power] consistently demonstrated two lessons:

  1. You have a finite amount of willpower that becomes depleted as you use it.
  2. You use the same stock of willpower for all manner of tasks.

“You might think you have one reservoir of self-control for work, another for dieting, another for exercise, and another for being nice to your family.  But the radish experiment showed that two completely unrelated activities – resisting chocolate and working on geometry puzzles – drew on the same source of energy, and this phenomenon has been demonstrated over and over.  There are hidden connections among the wildly different things you do all day.  You use the same supply of willpower to deal with frustrating traffic, tempting food, annoying colleagues, demanding bosses, putting children.” (pp.35-6)

In addition to controlling our thoughts, emotions, and impulses, we also draw the cognitive energy from the same reserve to control our performance: “focusing your energy on the task at hand, finding the right combination of speed and accuracy, managing time, persevering when you feel like quitting.” (Baumeister & Tierney, p.37) Knowing that our mind, like muscles, is subject to the affordability of our inner energy or brain food, derived from nutrients, prominently glucose among others, may help us direct our attention to whatever that really matters.

In reverse, distraction or anticipation of being distracted may work against our volition. An interesting example is captured by James E. Mitchell, psychologist who helped CIA develop the controversial Enhanced Interrogation Techniques (EITs), in his latest work, Enhanced Interrogation: Inside the Minds and Motives of the Islamic Terrorists Trying to Destroy America (2016).

Enhanced Interrogation

While being detained for interrogation, Abu Zubaydah, an al Qa’aida leader, not  surprisingly, refused to cooperate and kept breaking his chairs in protest. In response, Mitchell successfully manipulated Zubaydah’s attention:

Because Abu Zubaydah seemed intent on making a contest out of breaking the chairs, I knew asking him to stop would be more of a reward than a deterrent. Instead, I recommended using what in psychology is called a paradoxical intervention. The idea, based on the notion that people do things for a reason, is to prescribed more of the behavior you are trying to eliminate. It’s sometimes called reverse psychology.

“I reasoned that for the intervention to work, we needed Abu Zubaydah to believe that we had so many plastic patio chairs that we weren’t bothered when he broke them. I had the guards collect all the identical patio chairs we had on-site, but that wasn’t enough, and so we had fifteen chairs identical to ours brought to the black site. When we added the new ones to the ones we already had, we ended up with two stacks of identical chairs, both reaching from the floor to the high ceiling.

“The guards waited until the next time Abu Zubaydah started bouncing up and down in his chair. They then wordlessly carried the two huge stacks of chairs and placed them within his sight line just outside his cell door, prepositioning the chairs so that they would be handy the next time a broken one needed to be replaced. The guards turned up the two stacks of chairs from floor to ceiling and back down again. He covered his mouth with his hands and shook his head. The chair breaking stopped and never started again.” (p.26)

Lately a convict who is notorious for having committed a series of armed robberies with a history of escape from prison is lying on his death bed being grinded by terminal illness in one of the wards I oversee.  Despite his declining cognitive and physical capability, the convict struggled defiantly whenever nursing staff attempted to administer medicine and injection to him as if he was defying his own mortality by desperately exercising his choice however little he has been left with. The gentler the nursing staff persuaded him to calm down and let them finish their jobs, the harder the convict resisted; the more patience they displayed when urging the convict to loosen his grip, the harder the convict clenched his fist…

clenched fist handcuffedOnce I recalled the “paradoxical intervention” and the limited cognitive resources available for a person, I started urging the convict to hold his grip harder verbally in the midst of my colleagues’ voices telling him to let go his grip soothingly when I tried to unlock his hand with mine. Interestingly, it works! Having applied such techniques for several times, we found that the convict seemed to be exhausted while being bombarded by our simultaneously opposing orders but to let go his clenching fist to our pull. Besides, he stopped shouting vulgar words which he intended to enrage us shortly after we joined him to shout those words in unison…It looks like that he has overstretched himself in terms of attention. While focusing on disobeying our verbal orders deliberately, the convict failed to afford as much resource to stand our physical challenge

Perhaps it makes a good case for the theory positing that our divided attention for cognitive and physical activities is drawn from the same pool of cognitive resources. The predictive power of the theory has seemingly been validated in the loosening grip of the convict (N=1, the sample is ridiculously small to account for individual differences after all) once his attention was diverted to handle our confusing commands. And yet, like how all academic papers are to be concluded, further studies are needed to confirm the validity of such little clinical observation concerning the ebb and flow of our attention.


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