Look! Something Bright and Shiny!
Here's a piece of the puzzle that hadn't yet fallen into place when I wrote on Sunday about texting at the theater. In Tuesday's New York Times, John Tierney discussed the research of M.I.T. neuroscientist Robert Desimone, who "has been tracking the brain waves of macaque monkeys and humans as they stare at video screens looking for certain flashing patterns."
This is the key bit: "When something bright or novel flashes, it tends to automatically win the competition for the brain's attention" -- and even though we can override that impulse, it's a struggle.
"It takes a lot of your prefrontal brain power to force yourself not to process a strong input like a television commercial," said Dr. Desimone, the director of the McGovern Institute for Brain Research at M.I.T. "If you're trying to read a book at the same time, you may not have the resources left to focus on the words."
Reading a book when a TV set is turned on, watching a play when someone lights up the darkness with a glowing screen: Either way, our attention has just moved from what we want to focus on to something we have to fight hard to ignore.