Tag Archives: psychology

Distraction, “the Attentional Commons” and Birmingham


Birmingham New Street: the attentional commons colonized by commerce

It so happened that while I was reading about a concept of the “attentional commons,” I was staying right next door to a building that perfectly illustrated the problem that Matthew Crawford talks about in The World Beyond Your Head, as I’m going to explain below. But first, let’s take a few moments to deal with New Street Station.

I cannot think of an uglier, more monstrous, pretentious and dehumanizing building in contemporary Britain than Birmingham New Street Station. Not that you’d even know it was there at all now, because it’s been smothered by a gigantic steel tablecloth with all signs of movement, travel, public service, usefulness and even the name of the station itself hidden from view. Being inside it is no better: you cannot use your own judgement and vision to see where the trains are, or any local landmarks to get your bearings. I know roughly where the town hall, the cathedral, the Bull Ring, and the Hippodrome are, and I used to know where the station was, but inside Grand Central (as the place—whatever it is—is called now) there is no geography, no public space, no lines, no corners, no light and shade. It’s like being imprisoned in a light bulb.

The Station Street entrance to New Street station: a terrible assault on the attentional commons

The Station Street entrance to New Street Station/Grand Central, with its permanent TV screen of advertisements: abuse of the attentional commons

The people I pity most are those who live in Station Street, whose buildings are bathed 24 hours a day in the changing coloured lights of the enormous advertising “eye” over the front entrance of the building, where in the past, a moderately sized and lit sign with the name of the station and a British Rail logo should  have been. The eye is the biggest insult of all. Whereas human eyes move in order to take in aspects of the environment, this massive advertising screen fixes your stare, and is too big to be avoided by any regular eye movement.  High above it, John Lewis’s glass and steel gasometer dominates and obliterates the skyline.Everything of human proportions and everyday use is dwarfed and humiliated in its sight. It’s a kind of Stalinist monumentalism adopted by a department store, except I think a Stalinist would at least have built a park or something to give the building and the public some breathing space.

John Lewis, Birmingham: colonizing the attentional commons with a massive logo and an oversized building

Never Knowingly Undersized, John Lewis’s grandiose, vacuous gasometer hiding the wonderful civic architecture behind it.

Giving distraction a name: the assault on the attentional commons

I could not give a name to the visceral annoyance that Grand Central induces in me every time I see it, until I read Matthew Crawford’s  The World Beyond Your Head: How to Flourish in An Age of Distraction, where he uses the term attentional commons. He begins by emphasising that human attention is a limited resource, continually at risk of depletion by the advertising that increasingly occupies every spare bit of space around us (on the side of buses, tickets, hotel key fobs, on televisions in departure lounges and post offices, for example).  Our attentional resources, and the “attentional commons”  are being plundered by private advertisers.

Airports are probably the worst example. Just once in my life, I was in the business class lounge at an airport, and experienced exactly what Crawford describes: what you get for travelling business class is the absence of advertising, and the freeing up of your attention for your own stuff. It’s what we used to expect of the outside world as a normal condition, but no longer: in one example cited by Crawford, adverts for l’Oréal in the bottom of the security trays at airports compete for your attention, so that you might easily miss the USB drive that you put in there.

I’ve got another example that involves humans.  I have only twice in my life left my debit card in a machine at a shop, and in both cases, it was because at the crucial point where I needed to focus on putting in my PIN and removing the card, the shop assistant started asking me whether I wanted the chance to enter a free prize draw, or get a two-for-one offer instead of the thing that I had bought.  In both cases, I was just about to leave the country on a trip, so my attention was already used up on all the other things I needed to do.  This is a claim on my attention, with disastrous consequences, and it’s at a point where I think the shop has an ethical obligation to observe what Crawford calls my right not to be addressed.  If you’re driving a car, and your passenger can see you’re negotiating a difficult situation on the road, they’ll shut up and let you concentrate. We have an ethical responsibility to be respectful of the limited attentional resources of others—and it’s that responsibility that is increasingly ignored in public life.

The right not to be addressed

Crawford’s point is that we take it for granted that we have a right not to be addressed in this way, but this right is being eroded in the form of advertising and noise (there’s an interesting parallel here with what Bart Kosko says in Noise about things like email spam, which constitute intrusive, unethical  “noise”).

I think we need to sharpen the conceptually murky right to privacy by supplementing it with a right not to be addressed. This would apply not, of course, to those who address me face-to-face as individuals, but to those who never show their face, and treat my mind as a resource to be harvested by mechanized means. (p. 13)


Out of place, out of proportion, and in your face: the steel canopy over New Street Station blocking light and assaulting the landscape.

And that’s what is so vile about Grand Central. Its enormous tent-like shape hides the station beneath it, and overwhelms and obscures the public space all around it. And as if that weren’t enough it has a permanent TV show of adverts on its eye-shaped screen, commanding and appropriating attention. Inside, everything about travel, trains, stations and information is dwarfed by the shopping centre. It’s the kind of station brilliantly described in a novel I can’t remember the name of where platforms and trains are an embarrassment that the architects have tried to hide away.  “Grand Central” is also another example of the insidious privatisation of public space, it’s oversized, inhuman proportions thrust up against the surrounding landscape with the lack of grace of an overweight giant taking over the seat next to you on a plane. It isn’t even elegant: the steel canopy gives up a few feet above the street, as if the designer couldn’t work out how to finish it off.  If a builder did this to your house, you’d sue them.


Corporate manspreading

It’s manspreading on a massive corporate scale, but we barely have a name for the rights that are eroded when so much public space is intruded by adverts and demands on your attention. Now we do. It’s a concept of an attentional commons, and the right not to be addressed. I’m not sure what we can do about it, but I hope at least that the residents of Station Street are going to give Grand Central hell until they turn that bloody TV screen off.


Grand central, seen from the Bull Ring. This is a building that has “f*** you” written all over it. Attention-seeking, narcissistic, and obsessed with dominating everything around it, it’s an architectural psychopath.

More about attentional commons and distraction

Musicality: not such a big question after all?


It’s very common in the dance education world to denigrate the word ‘musicality’, because it’s a woolly term. Or people look at you in a knowing way and say ‘What is musicality, anyway? That’s the big question!’

But I’ve come to the conclusion that ‘what is musicality?’ is not a big question. It’s a word which does have several available meanings out there in the world of scholarship, philosophy, music psychology and education research. You can also get a good idea of what people mean by it just by reading what they say (unless they say ‘Now that’s a big question!’, of course).  For example, ‘human musicality’ is a word used by neuroscientists and psychologists to describe the innate capacity of the human brain to deal with music. ‘Communicative musicality’ is a field that covers all kinds of musical aspects of communication, such as ‘motherese’, the musical language that mothers and babies develop between themselves before words and concepts.

Notions such as Musikalität and das Musikalische can traced back to the late 18th century in German philosophy according to Lydia Goehr in Elective Affinities, and they’re related to the concept of Innerlichkeit or ‘inwardness’.  Music psychologist Susan Hallam has written several articles on popular conceptions of what ‘musicality’ means, and is one of many music educationalists to point out that for many, ‘musicality’ is synonymous, however misguidedly, with musical ability.

On a more basic level, ‘musicality’ is sometimes used to describe aspects of something that have the qualities associated with music such as rhythm, timing, dynamics, accent, or tone quality. There are several studies which have looked at conventions of musical expression, and for some people, ‘musicality’ means just being able to play expressively. ‘Musical’ is also used to refer to people who are temperamentally suited to becoming musicians (otherwise they wouldn’t have chosen to do so), or for whom music is a big part of their lives.  ‘Musicality’ in some cases, like 19th century novels, is readable as an aspect of a middle class girl’s education, part of ‘finishing school’, whether she is much good at it or not.

The difficulty is not what ‘musicality’ means, but of spending the time and effort to do the necessary reading, thinking and reflection to negotiate its several meanings. There may be no consensus on what it means, but that doesn’t mean it has no meaning as a word, it implies on the contrary that there are too many meanings to give it a single definition, and that we need to understand all of them and our own position in order to make sense of it.  To hide behind the lack of consensus as an excuse to get rid of the word is cheating. Ironically, those who claim that it’s a ‘big question’ are probably themselves secretly or unwittingly hanging on to a single notion of das Musikalische as ‘Innerlichkeit’, which is why they, hip postmodernists that they are, are so keen to deny that it means anything at all.

The multi-tasking myth: how much more evidence do you need?


I just love hating multi-tasking.  Self-styled multi-taskers are the most irritating, self-deluding, smug and dangerous people I know. Fortunately, they are doomed to distinction in evolutionary terms – their brains will never spend long on enough attending to one thing to develop into anything beyond neural spacedust, and they will walk into moving traffic as they change songs on their iPods. Unfortunately, a number of the rest of us will be killed by drivers who are reaching for a sandwich, putting on lipstick, arguing on their mobile or distracted by their overpumped in-car entertainment system.  And I predict that most of those killers will be women, since it is women who are falsely credited with being able to multi-task. Let’s hope they stop believing it.

Up til now, my anti multi-tasking rants have focused on a bit of research here, and a hunch there. But I was delighted to see the main points immortalized in print in John Medina’s book Brain Rules. I’d heartily recommend the book, it’s one of the best reads I’ve had in a long time, but for the low-down on the multi-tasking see the section on Attention at www.brainrules.net.

Pass on the good news
If you want to make the world a better place, share the news with others.  Here’s an example. On my way to Malta a few weeks ago, I was waiting in the queue for the checkouts at Boots at Gatwick Airport. There were two people on the tills, one a rather dour looking girl, the other a friendly looking guy. Please God, I thought, let me get the nice bloke. The dour girl was treating the customer in front of her like she was trying to bring back library books that were ten years overdue, issuing thin-lipped information about what the customer could and couldn’t do as she stared into the till and fiddled with change.

I was just on the point of wanting to slap her, when she looked up at the customer and suddenly the impression changed – she wasn’t a fembot after all.  Meanwhile, I was lucky enough to get the nice bloke, who was even nicer than  the impression I’d had. His colleague was bantering with him as I went towards the till, so he smiled at me and said ‘We’re always having these arguments about multi-tasking, because she says men can’t multitask’.

‘Nobody can’, I replied,’Not even women’. Its’ a myth. There are people who think a better word for it would be ‘continuous partial attention’.

‘Continuous partial attention’, he repeated, clearly engaged ‘I must remember that. You learn something new everyday.’

And as I left, I realised why his colleague had come over so dour and ghastly – she was trying to multi-task: talk to a customer while she was counting change. And because she was counting change, she talked to the customer without eye contact, as if the customer was a coin that needed putting in the til, not a human being. As soon as she stopped multi-tasking and focused on the customer, she was normal again.

My nice bloke, by contrast, focused on the customer (me), maintained eye contact, and had a real conversation. He could do this, because he didn’t try to do something else at the same time. For service like that, I’d come back to Boots, so customer-service trainers, take note.

See also (via wikipedia) Christine Rosen (2008) The Myth of Multitasking from The New Atlantis.

Change deafness, multi-tasking and ballet teaching


I was talking to a friend recently about scams and conmen. Our conclusion was that anyone who says ‘it would never happen to me’ is deluding themselves.  The thing with conmen is that they know how to deflect your attention from what they’re up to, and so this idea that you’ll always be as alert as you think you are now to the trouble looming round the corner is wishful thinking. Our conversation was just idle banter and comparing experiences and half-remembered things about psychology.

But it turns out there’s a whole field here in psychology called  ‘change blindness’  – the phenomenon whereby people are seemingly unable under certain conditions to detect even large  changes in what they’re  looking at.  The experiment in the video shows just how extreme this effect can be – and that’s under relatively normal circumstances. What happens is so absurd, I burst out laughing – yet 75% of people didn’t notice, and I bet I’d be in that 75%.

What interests me is the related phenomenon of ‘change deafness’ – the likelihood that we won’t notice major changes in sound. An article in Current Biology in 2005  (Directed Attention Eliminates ‘Change Deafness’ in Complex Auditory Scene) suggests that in a complex auditory setting (i.e. where there are lots of sounds and sound sources) we only overcome ‘change deafness’ by directing attention to one source at a time. The concluding sentence goes like this: “Whatever the mechanisms, our results indicate that auditory perception is limited by attention and that our experience of a rich and detailed auditory world may be largely illusory.”

As I’m fond of saying, so much for multitasking. Next time someone says to you ‘I am listening’ while they’re doing something or trying to hold another conversation with someone on the phone, you can more even more justified in disbelieving them.  But what really interests me about this is the implications it might have for dance teaching. There’s a certain kind of teacher that manages to speak with the music, so that their voice becomes part of the music, another line. In doing so, they draw attention to the music. Even if there’s residual noise in the room, or from an adjacent studio, they’re still pulling the dancers towards the music and vice versa:  if they don’t do this, then teacher’s voice & the music become competing signals, and it will be hard for dancers to take much notice of either.

It’s not always the way that you do it, sometimes it’s what you do


Fascinating article from the Journal of Experimental Psychology, I like the sound of your voice: Affective learning about vocal signals‘.  We’d all like to think, wouldn’t we, that having a ‘musical’ voice is what counts, and that – to paraphrase the old song – ‘It’s not what you say, it’s the way that you say it’, a kind of vocal sugaring of the pill.

But it seems from this research that while it’s true that the mere sound of a voice can induce different affects in us – hear laughter, and you have a general sense of wellbeing, hear a scream, and you begin to worry – that’s not the whole story.  The results of this study suggest  that hearing a speaker say negatively charged words (like taxes or divorce) would influence your judgement of the acoustic qualities of their voice to the extent that even if that person were to say relatively nice things at a later date, your experience of the content of what they said earlier has coloured the perceived quality of their voice. The opposite applies – someone you heard talk about love and kittens yesterday could tell you you’re fat and for a moment you might think they’d said something nice.

This seems to have enormous implications for teaching in the arts. However ‘musical’ your voice may be, if what you say is negatively charged, then your listener’s perception of those musical qualities will be overridden by the content. And conversely, it goes some way to explaining something that is beginning to puzzle me in my own research – why is it that the people I know that seem to me to be very ‘musical’ often have very quiet, perhaps even subdued and not necessarily highly expressive voices? Could it be that what they all have in common is that they’re nice people, and that their voice is ‘music to my ears’?

Cyclists: beware multitaskers


The driver who caused the death of one cyclist and injured another while she was distracted for – listen carefully – two seconds while throwing a spider out of a car window has been sentenced (full story from BBC here).  I keep banging on about multi-tasking, but here’s proof that you can’t do two things at once, and that there are occasions when mutli-tasking ceases to be a cute think-piece for a magazine article and becomes an insidious lie.

Insects in cars are an unpredictable hazard, but mobile phones, music, make-up and iPods aren’t, and the decision to use them while you’re driving is predicated on belief in ‘multi-tasking’ for which there is seemingly no evidence.  “Continuous partial attention,” the term coined by Linda Stone for what computer users do, might be a better way of looking at it.

And is music really distracting?   Yes, according to a BBC news item from 2004 reports (link via Music and Mind in Everyday Life, by Eric Clarke, Nicola Dibben & Stephanie Pitts).