A writer at text2cloud (honestly, I’ve looked for an author credit, but turn up empty-handed) argues for a distinction between distraction and mind-wandering.
I greatly admire Gilbert’s Stumbling on Happiness, but here I think he might be shoehorning the insight of that book into the glass slipper of his preliminary research on the wandering mind. That is, he has already made a compelling case that there are profound emotional consequences to being future-oriented–most notably, our gross overestimation of just how much having X (be it a car, a new job, a new partner) will improve our future happiness. But I think the categories of the current study conflate the wandering mind and the distracted mind.
They go on to make a fine (both in the sense of interesting, and in the sense of very delicate) distinction between distraction and mind-wandering. and how the humanities should promote the one but not the other:
I think the function of the humanities is two-fold: to provide a space to escape from self-imposed certainty and to promote the discovery not only of new thoughts but of new realms of thought. So understood, the humanities can be seen as the constellation of disciplines that encourage mental wandering and that associate this kind of mental work with the pleasures of discovery, insight, release.
The problem, of course, is that it’s always been a challenge to disaggregate the two; and in the classroom, they they look pretty much identical.
The NYT has a much longer piece this weekend on education and technology, “Growing Up Digital, Wired for Distraction,” which details the now familiar story of life in school today–where it’s all about texting, surfing, making movies, and being everywhere and nowhere at the same time. The teachers are completely exasperated; the kids would like to do better, but there’s the whole “instant gratification” thing that’s impossible to resist with this new fangled gadgetry.
Am I splitting hairs to say that I see a difference between a state of distraction and mental wandering? The video gamer who banks eight hours in front of his screen is highly focused, fully consumed by the images and the appearance of motion, action, achievement.
I do worry that the distinction between mind-wandering and distraction can be turned into positive and negative terms, rather than used as categories that can help shape technology choice and design: just as “literacy” tends to be used to describe skills we like (there’s no such thing as “sex literacy” or “pickpocketing literacy,” thought the former would make an awesome porn Web site), “mind-wandering” could easily be used to validate one activity as the Romantic cognitive equivalent of a wanderjahr, while we tag things we don’t like as distraction.