Lapse of Attention

September 30, 2014 at 4:22 pm | Posted in Non-fiction Essays | 1 Comment
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I walked into a waiting room in my underpants. No, it wasn’t a dream. It really happened at a yoga centre, in front of a dozen other students, two of whom were male. My long tank top covered the front of my panties, so my underwear wasn’t visible while I faced the group. Then I walked out the door and down the hall for a last minute visit to the bathroom. There I discovered my gaffe. Oh! Did anyone notice? I was wearing white panties and the black tank top didn’t cover my bum.

No use trying to hide it. Re-entering the waiting room, I said, “I forgot to put on my shorts.” Another student replied, “I noticed as you went out. I didn’t know whether to say something.” Two others nodded. They also had wondered if drawing attention to this embarrassing situation would make it worse.

I quickly entered the dressing room, put on my shorts and returned. A few muffled giggles but I took it with good humour and soon after we entered the studio. Before long, everyone’s mind was on the downward dog and not on my momentary lapse of attention.

Perhaps someone thought, “Poor dear. Had a ‘senior moment.’ She’s over 70.” But I wasn’t worried. Before I retired, my academic specialty was memory. Many times I lectured about our finite working memory and how the amount of information we can process at any specific moment is limited.

The capacity of working memory cannot be increased but we learn to perform a greater number of simultaneous activities by chaining movements together. For example, a baby learning to walk falls many times before acquiring the muscle coordination that we, as adults, accept as a single flowing movement. A teenager learns to drive by mastering a complex integration of motor activities and visual signals. Once acquired, these action routines run smoothly using a small reservoir of working memory that is neither completely conscious nor completely unconscious. This reservoir frees up memory capacity to concentrate on other tasks while still using a small amount of attention to monitor our motions. When sensory information attracts this semi-conscious monitoring system, we switch focus.

I can easily understand this by visualizing Britta, the receptionist at our yoga centre. I imagine Britta, with her shoulder-length blond hair, sitting upright at her desk entering information into a computer. Right now, she is concentrating on the computer task. A telephone rings and she immediately switches attention to her telephone-answering task. She can make the changeover quickly because her initial response has become automatic. (“Good morning. Iyengar Yoga Centre. How may I help you?” she says, in a lilting voice.) By the time she reacts to the caller’s question, her mind is fully engaged in the conversation. Then, a new student enters the office, prompting Britta to direct a small amount of her awareness to him. She smiles and holds up a finger, another habitual response, to let the visitor know she’ll address his concerns as soon as possible. After ending the telephone discussion, Britta turns her attention to the person standing at her front desk. Once she has taken care of his needs, she returns to her computer chore.

This is how the brain multitasks – by swapping conscious attention among ongoing activities. Some people believe that multitasking refers to the performance of two or more tasks simultaneously. But we can concentrate on only one task at a time and each switch takes a few milliseconds to refocus the brain. So errors can occur during the restart interval.

Consider driving and texting. Our driving motor skills operate automatically, without need for much conscious thought, until something unexpected occurs and we need to quickly shift total awareness to the driving task. A car swerves into the oncoming lane. A deer darts into the street. If the mind is engaged by text messages, the driver does not have enough time to shift attention. In a crisis situation, a few milliseconds can be too long to delay the change from automatic to focused driving and prevent a crash.

A driver can devote so much attention to texting that he or she doesn’t allocate any working memory to the background task. Just the other day, I read about a woman in North Carolina who concentrated on posting a message to her Facebook page. All her efforts were focused on this endeavor and the small amount of working memory she normally would have used to monitor her driving was allotted instead to texting. She crossed the median of a highway, hit a truck and died.

I usually can talk while changing into my yoga attire, because putting on clothes is a routine task. The few times I need to switch more working memory to the dressing effort are generally triggered by external cues. But I was engaged in the conversation and didn’t notice the shorts tucked in the corner of my bag. And so I committed what psychologists call a ‘slip of action.’ I didn’t switch more working memory to the habitual task at a critical stage.

I used to amuse my students by telling them about other blunders, such as the many times I ended up driving to the wrong place. For example, going home via my usual route, planning a side trip to the bank, I’d end up in my own driveway, having forgotten to make the turn that led to the bank. Or intending to go to the rec centre that was two blocks past my office, I’d instead find myself in the university parking lot. I often drove familiar routes on autopilot – until two minor fender benders in my early 60s motivated me to re-evaluate my driving habits.

The capacity of working memory reaches its peak at age 21 and declines steadily thereafter. It drops more sharply after 50. Now I keep my mind on the road while driving. No daydreaming. No writing reports in my mind. Older drivers learn to accommodate for working memory decline until eventually, around 80, they lose the ability to drive safely. This doesn’t mean we lose our minds as we age, just the ability to monitor several sources of information and switch attention quickly when needed.

I doubt that I’ll ever again forget to put on my shorts in the changing room. In the future I’ll allot more attention to dressing. But I know I’ll do something equally silly, like forget where I parked my car (I now carefully note its position, especially in underground parkades), or mislay my keys (I have one designated location but if my routine is interrupted, it can take hours to find them), or walk through the front door without the book I planned to return to the library. I’m not losing my mind. As my working memory loses capacity, I must allocate more space to the focused task and less to the reservoir containing rapidly changing sensory information. But this means that sometimes I miss a signal directing me to rapidly shift my focus. No more multitasking for me.

Me in downward dog in the yoga studio.

Me in downward dog in the yoga studio.

Me in the downward dog in the yoga studio.

Me in the downward dog in the yoga studio.

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