I really enjoyed doing this interview with Sarah Green at Harvard Business Review for their podcasting series. The title “The Myth of Monotasking” is based on the idea that the brain doesn’t know how to monotask, in fact the term “multitasking” doesn’t really mean much of anything when you think about it carefully since virtually everything we do as humans involves coordinating multiple cognitive tasks all happening at once. This interview helps straighten out some of the confusions around that mushy term and, I hope, helps lower anxiety about how well we are or are not doing against some mythical standard of sustained, focused attention. Bottom line: the mind wanders a lot because the mind’s task is to wander.
It doesn’t help to replace one mushy term with other mushy terms, and mushy thinking. No, it’s not true that “the mind wanders a lot because the mind’s task is to wander.” Sometimes the mind is free to wander; sometimes the mind benefits greatly from wandering; sometimes — say, when a surgeon is removing a brain tumor — the mind had damned well better not wander. If you’re going to be serious about these matters, you need to start by admitting what thoughtful people have acknowledged at least since the Buddha: that concentration is highly valuable but difficult to achieve, and that the focused mind has a multitude of enemies. (I will add here, after a Twitter exchange, that previous sentence is an awkward way of referencing Davidson’s own invocation of the Buddha in the podcast, where she says that if people could concentrate we’d have more Buddhas — but then she goes on to portray the attempt to find absolute focus as a recipe for insanity.)
It’s fine to argue that we don’t suffer from this problem any more today than people in the past did, though I’m not sure quite how to do a serious comparative study of these matters. (What was it exactly that distracted the medieval farmer?) But just think about this: Have you ever, even once in your life, thought, “Gee, I wish I could concentrate less”?