C O N T R O L  S Y S T E M S

The Distraction System

This article is about two mental states: focus and distraction, which we define as follows:

Involuntary fragmentation
of attention

It’s also about the tendency of society to turn naturally focused people into chronically distracted automatons.

“Normal society” regards focused people as a threat, as they ask too many awkward questions (ie real questions – the kind we’re not supposed to ask). To avoid these questions, society distracts everybody with a frenzy of competitive activity, jobs, TV/media opinions, advertising, celebrity trivia, scandals, etc.

This frenzied distraction begins outside, but it soon becomes internalised and self-reinforcing. So after a busy, distracting day, we pursue more distraction (eg TV, shopping or talking) rather than enter a focused state. Eventually our own minds become the source of distraction.

When children learn new skills – walking, reading etc – they have to focus; they tap into a reservoir of potential concentration. But when a skill becomes habitual (ie automatic), the concentration is no longer needed. By the time we’re adults, most essential skills are habitual – we no longer need to concentrate in order to walk, talk, behave politely, etc. The reservoir of potential concentration should therefore be free for other uses.

But instead of tapping into this freed-up potential concentration, we’re seduced or coerced by society’s distractions. Our minds swarm – we react involuntarily to any passing stimuli. This is the true meaning of “fitting in”. Distraction is the social norm and anyone who doesn’t join in is regarded as antisocial or suspicious.

Advertisers brainwash us into reflexively associating distraction with enjoyment, as if involuntary fragmentation of attention was the definition of fun. Meanwhile, education, for most people, was about having to focus and concentrate on things we found boring and unpleasant, eg cramming for exams. So we end up thinking:

concentration = depressing;
distraction = fun.

But the opposite is true according to brain chemistry: focus can trigger a big release of pleasure chemicals, whereas distraction usually inhibits this release. Meditators are aware of this, but tend to play down the pleasure-seeking aspect of meditation, describing it instead as “inner work” (which, naturally, puts most people off).

Survival, for most of us, requires a degree of fitting in to “normal society”. Powerful economic forces make sure that our fitting in is long and distracting (eg 40hr-week jobs). Given this chronic distraction, it’s not surprising that so few people tune into focused states of mind. And those who do (meditators etc) unfortunately see it as austerity rather than fun.

Hedonistic focus – using your brain for fun – is the way to overcome the Distraction System. But you have to look in some strange places to find enjoyable focusing techniques (using our mental faculties to “get high” is, for respectable society, like using a church for an orgy – so we shouldn’t be surprised if the best techniques come from books that do recommend orgies in churches*).

Distraction addicts often seek more and more intensity of distraction, but never feel satisfied. That’s because intensity is a state of mind, not an external pursuit. As a mental state, it’s closer to focus than distraction. In other words, the best thing for thrill-seekers is to sit in a quiet room learning how to concentrate.