"Pay attention to the world." -- Susan Sontag
Spring 2020: Isolated White Irises (and Cognitive Overload)

Spring 2020: Isolated White Irises (and Cognitive Overload)

From Changing the Subject: Art and Attention in the Internet Age by Sven Birkerts:

“Caught up in such a radical overload of competing signals, the self naturally acts to preserve its equilibrium. We have several options. We may try to put curbs on intake, and if we can’t just shut off the flow, we learn to direct our attention selectively; or else we economize by skimming, taking in the highlights of a book, an event, a speech or conversation. Where possible we speed ourselves up or divide our awareness in such a way that we can carry on several activities at once…. But … it’s worth inquiring about the cost, which is surely a loss of focus, attention, immersion, and connectedness….

“This dilution is what inevitably happens when the attention is distributed or fragmented. After all, an experience, an encounter, is only ever as intense, as ‘real,’ as our ability to respond to it — it is always less about the event than about the perception of the event. We are all capable of complete engagement on one end of the spectrum and scattered distractedness on the other. Who of us imagines he is exempt? The greener grass on the other side of the fence has more to do with the desire for greater focus than with the actual color of that other field….

From Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman:

“We normally avoid mental overload by dividing our tasks into multiple easy steps, committing intermediate results to long-term memory or to paper rather than to an easily overloaded working memory. We cover long distances by taking our time and conduct our mental lives by the law of least effort.”

From Distracted: The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age by Maggie Jackson and Bill McKibben:

“Attention casts the deciding vote in what we perceive of the world and so is the beast to harness in a world of cognitive overload.”

“Isolated White Irises and Cognitive Overload” — how’s that for a blog post title?

Once upon a time, in the years before I decided to retire, I was part of a large project team working to replace a complex set of software systems for a manufacturing business. The project lasted about five years and was sort of my swan song since it took place in the third decade of my information technology career. As the project moved from beginning to end — sucking up exponentially more time, money, people, and brainpower — it turned into the most stressful event of my entire career…. actually, of my entire life. I started trying to manage my stress by walking and walking and walking — and listening to audiobooks about how to manage stress. That’s not really important any more; I only mention it to provide context for the rest of this post.

In about the second year of the project, people began to talk about how the stress was affecting them. I’ll always remember a meeting where one of the team members told us that on the way into the office, she had tried to use a credit card instead of her i.d. badge to access the building then presented her i.d. badge to pay for coffee. We had a good laugh about that — humor is often about juxtaposition — but we were also laughing a little uncomfortably maybe, because each of us was making the same kinds of mistakes, with greater frequency than any of us considered normal.

We were all experiencing a kind of cognitive overload that occurs when trying to deal with constantly competing, conflicting demands and an endless flood of new inputs that we had to think about on a daily — sometimes hourly — basis. This kind of overload — different from information overload, which is benign by comparison — occurs when external events present more than your brain can effectively process and separate into short-term and long-term memory, so short-term memory (which also enables you to complete most tasks) hiccups like a computer that can’t keep up with the demands on it.

Think of it this way: when you visit any city for the first time, you’ll often feel a little disoriented as you take in a large number of new sensory inputs and try to navigate unfamiliar streets. You’ll feel less uncomfortable the second time, more comfortable the third time, and fairly quickly adapt (you are a marvelous adapting organism!) to your newly understood surroundings. Now imagine the same scenario, except that every day that you set out, the streets have been rearranged — and you will gain some insight into what cognitive overload really means.

As a simplistic explanation, your brain seeks its own natural efficiency and keeps you functioning by doing two things: first, it filters out excess information that’s not relevant to what you’re trying to focus on; and, second, it tries to help you “automate” your experiences so that things you’ve already learned — especially tasks you want to execute in a sequence — don’t have to be consciously relearned every time you do them. Driving is a good example: once you’ve learned and had sufficient experience with the step-by-step actions required to crank up the car and propel it toward a destination, you don’t have to consciously walk through those steps every time. You simply act on them, effortlessly and subconsciously. The process steps have essentially become automatic, freeing up your brain (and you!) to think about something else.

So what’s happening, right now?

You don’t need me to point out that you’ve been bombarded over the past few weeks with a huge volume of information. Unlike the excessive political and cultural noise that has increased over the past few years, this information is different: it’s disrupting daily life in ways we don’t even fully understand yet; and it’s about an event that potentially threatens your physical health — and is therefore harder to turn off. Below are a few observations — born of my own five-year war on stress and trying to help others deal with it.

  • We all rely on a variety of information sources, but it’s important to remember that our “information infrastructure” is based on a attention-capturing revenue model, specifically tuned to trap you in a psychological state where you find it difficult to turn away. The model isn’t just embedded in social networking sites; it has permeated most media outlets — regardless of their form — and tries to draw you in by hooking you emotionally with sensationalism, or, right now, with fear. Consider, for example, these two recent headlines from different sources, about the same moment in time (four days ago) and about the same news:

    Coronavirus explodes in Georgia with nearly 150 cases confirmed

    146 cases of coronavirus confirmed in Georgia

    The phrases “coronavirus explodes” and “nearly 150 cases” in the first headline are typical of the millions of bits of clickbait that we’re all inundated with: the headline uses emotionally-charged and ambiguous terms to heighten your anxiety and get you to click. The second one presents the headline as a precise statement of fact and you’ll have a completely different reaction to that: your brain processes it less emotionally and with less anxiety as information instead of grasping first at your fears. If you’re getting information from sites that constantly play on your emotions (those using emotion and ambiguity to get your attention), stop following them or reading them and find better sources (they’re out there). In many cases, these better sources will be more local and useful for you anyway (the second headline was from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution), and very deserving of your attention and support.
  • Because your brain is attempting to perceive, process, and integrate so much news and information — and that news and info has such an impact on what you do and how you act — the parts of your brain that help you perform common daily tasks are overloaded by trying to sort it out. You may feel this as a sense of slight confusion or fog, or reduced awareness of your external surroundings. Like the story I told about switching an i.d. badge with a credit card, you might temporarily forget steps in tasks, make mistakes you don’t normally make, or do things out of order. So allow yourself to slow down a bit, make lists or consciously bring steps in a task into focus as you do them, or take a few deep breaths before you drive a car or operate machinery or tools — and you may notice that the fog of cognitive overload at least partially dissipates as you shift your whirling thoughts to the present moment instead.
  • People deal with anxiety and stress in many different ways, of course; but I think that it’s useful to recognize that one driver of increased anxiety is actual — or perceived — loss of control. Most elements of this event have been imposed on you, it’s highly impactful, you can’t avoid it, and its has no contextual precedent in your life experiences. So try to just accept that and influence what you can: your immediate physical surroundings, your relationships and interactions, the thoughts racing around in your head, and the information you consume.

    Activities like reading, writing, listening to music, or creative pursuits (like photography!) help shift your brain onto something other than thoughts about things you can’t control; and activities that also include light, low-risk, repetitive physical activity can be even more effective. That’s why walking in natural surroundings works so well as a stress-reducer: your brain can idle as it effortlessly takes in natural sights punctuated by the rhythmic movement of your legs and the rhythm of your breathing. Of course — in these circumstances — you have an additional risk assessment to keep in mind, so only walk where you have confidence in its safety and the ability to keep your distance, since you can only control your own actions and not the actions of others. If you have a dog, dogs, a cat, or cats, engage in play as much as you can; my little pup has turned out to be a top-notch performer when it comes to helping me reduce my stress levels — and, apparently, he never gets tired of playing ball!
  • You may have experienced some anxiety about buying essential supplies, especially food, and especially after seeing news coverage of quarter-mile long lines at grocery stores and overstuffed carts. A couple of mollifying thoughts, based on what happened in the Atlanta area: (1) over a period of three days last week, families everywhere learned that schools were closing and businesses were sending tens of thousands of people home to work, effective almost immediately and with an unknown end date; (2) many families of course realized that they needed extra food and other supplies, to cover those meals that were provided in schools or by grabbing breakfast or lunch at a nearby restaurant during the workday; (3) the shift home came just before a weekend, when stores are typically busier anyway.

    These factors combined with inadequate government messaging about supply chains to create an unprecedented surge in demand, which settled down in less than a week. The grocery stores near me are still busier than usual and taking extra time to restock, but surge-buying is subsiding. We can all help each other by planning a little ahead for our essential purchases: where you may have been accustomed to dashing to a store to fill gaps in the fridge or pantry, try to plan out meals for as many days as you can, and shop or order from delivery services at regular intervals but no more than necessary. Every human interaction now implies some risk: even if you choose to have supplies delivered, several people must interact to make that happen. We are not, unfortunately, accustomed to thinking about the apparent miracle of food appearing in our grocery stores or packages materializing on our front porches, but this is a good time to consider all the individuals that make that possible.

    Planning ahead can help you manage some of the anxiety; even the mental act of planning helps smooth those ragged thoughts — some of which you might direct toward the millions of people already suffering from food insecurity that will increase in these times. Check organizations like Feeding America or Meals on Wheels for local chapters and donate if you can; these organizations can take even a few dollars and stretch it substantially to help families in need. United Farm Workers of America is an excellent resource for learning more about how those fruits and vegetables actually get from the field to your kitchen. They would like you to know that the people who put food on your table do not get to telecommute — and are among the many heroes who deserve our thanks.
  • Give yourself a break from the bad news by trying to find some of the emerging good news, things that are happening around you that are a testament to human beings and their endless creativity, ingenuity, and spirit. Locally, for example, many restaurants are converting to pickup and delivery to keep some of their staff employed; others are distributing meals to laid-off employees or providing lunches and dinners to first-responders and health-care workers; and a local animal shelter is even trying “drive-up adoptions” so people can continue to foster or adopt animals while minimizing exposure to others.

    For me, being something of a tech/culture/society nerd, I also like to dig into stories about how some of the changes happening right now may point toward permanent shifts in how society is structured. Picture this: over the last week, as much as 30% of the American work force — in both private and government organizations — streamed from their office buildings and skyscrapers to work at home instead of in crowded offices, some initially stumbling perhaps over the difference between face-to-face and remote or video interactions but quickly adapting. Many will return, I’m sure; but others will begin to realize their work is just as satisfying wherever it’s performed, and some organizations will recognize that their physical presence in a concrete and steel structure really isn’t required. Imagine, for example, that in some number of cities in any country, several thousand people no longer have to commute every day, and just one block of skyscrapers gets converted into affordable housing or even green-space. Dreamy, perhaps, but I do believe the seeds of transformational place-related changes — whose potential has been visible for years now — are being planted as this event unfolds.

By Monday, March 15, nearly every public space I like to haunt (like Zoo Atlanta, Atlanta Botanical Gardens, Atlanta History Center) had closed for at least two weeks. I’m not complaining! Parks like Grant Park, Piedmont Park, Oakland Cemetery, and many others remain open, but I’ve decided to stay away for now, instead planning to finish processing a few hundred spring photos I’d already taken at Oakland, and shifting the camera’s focus to the early growth in my own garden. I took and posted a lot of photos from my garden last year — so for me it seems a little like a rerun — but we’ll see what sort of new and creative things I can do with some of the same subjects on a reboot. I probably won’t write 2500-word essays (this was exhausting!) with each batch of photos … or maybe I will! 🙂

For the gallery below, I took the first pair of photos a couple of weeks ago, thinking that the incoming irises would be light blue or purple, based on their tip colors. Turns out — as I discovered on a second trip — they bloomed in pure white, presenting a nice contrast with the background colors, or against a background converted to black as in the last three photos.

Thanks for reading and taking a look! More spring colors soon … be safe!


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