Distracted teenagers, their minds wandering from homework as they long for the excitement and stimulation of their immersive videogames, have become poster children for critics who say that technology is damaging our attention spans.
But consider another group of videogame players, steering a virtual car over hills and past curves, spotting signs that offer them rewards on their journey. These players have white hair, and their attention spans are improving.
Attention is a limited resource. Essentially, we can focus on only one thing at a time. When we multitask while driving—scolding the children, or suddenly recalling that we have a doctor’s appointment in 20 minutes, or turning to see the angry driver who just honked at us—our attention shifts away from the basic activity of directing the car.
Fortunately, for important tasks, our brains can learn to become increasingly efficient in limiting interference. Thus an eye surgeon learns to ignore her itchy nose until she is finished with a procedure. Exactly how the brain allocates attention, draws on memory when it should and orchestrates quick, minute shifts in focus is not yet well understood.