This is a fascinating article on how the limits of our short-term visual memory. I think that the idea that “limits on visual memory are related to limits on the number of items we can attend to at once” holds a lot of water. I’ve noticed that when I’m being inundated with information–such as articles on my Bloglines–I tend to feel like I’m overloading, often to the point that I scroll past things without looking at them, or even unsubscribe to something that is giving me too much to take in. Likewise, while I’m focused on a writing task, I have a hard time paying attention to anything else, including the music I’m playing in the background. The song could be running over and over for hours, and I wouldn’t realize it. Sean has tried to talk to me while I was writing (or reading), only to have me bark, “I’m busy!”
Less cognitive-intensive things, like making printouts, mailing packages, and sorting items are easier on my brain, so I can usually do two or three of those at once while listening to my boss explain something else. However, even then I sometimes have to ask him to repeat himself.
This limit on our conscious attention actually seems to be a fundamental behind a book Robert loaned me, Getting Things Gone by David Allen. Allen posits that having no plans or routines for dealing with multiple tasks causes them to pester us via our subconscious mind. His organizational system hinges on setting up areas in which to file work items so that we don’t have to think about them until it’s time to…thus freeing our minds to think about what we need to at the moment.
I don’t know if this is something we can, or even necessarily should, evolve out of. It seems to me that noticing what is important and then acting on that knowledge is a necessary part of life. Perhaps this is our brains simply being efficient. If we don’t need to see or know something, our subconscious minds may simply be ignoring those things in favor of what our conscious minds are dealing with. Would it really be better for the subconscious to stop doing this, and to allow the conscious mind to process everything? I’m not sure that it would be as easy to focus if that were the case–this might even have something to do with people having short attention spans/ADD.
Pretty interesting stuff.