Cognitive Impatience: The Path to Stupidity

Who I am
Robert Maurer

Author and references

It is more and more common. It is so widespread that we could call it the "evil of our hyper-connected age". Talk to a person. He's listening to you. Or at least it seems. You think you have emotionally tuned in, that you have conveyed your message. But later you discover that that person understood almost nothing of what you said. And the next day he doesn't even remember. It is cognitive impatience, the most direct path to stupidity.

What is cognitive impatience?

When was the last time you read a text from start to finish, without despair, without getting tired, without stopping reading to do something else, without getting distracted and urgently moving on to something else "more interesting"?

This inability to keep attention focused on a single task is what literature professor Mark Edmundson called cognitive impatience. This professor realized that many college students actively avoid classical literature of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries because they do not have the patience to read longer and denser texts than what is normally found on the internet.

Thus he coined the term "cognitive impatience," which refers to the inability to pay attention during the time it takes to understand the complexity of a thought or discussion. By not paying attention and being victims of impatience, not only can we not understand complex ideas, but we cannot memorize the simplest ideas either.

The thunderous noise of distraction

We live in a world where silence has become a luxury. Noise is almost omnipresent, not only acoustic noise but also a more dangerous one: the noise of distraction. Loneliness has given way to a permanent presence that interrupts us constantly and under all circumstances, a presence that is responsible for instant messaging, social networks, the compulsive consumption of information ...

In the age of hyper-connectivity, anxiety reigns. And to strengthen his reign he did not hesitate to erase the tranquility so necessary to concentrate and reflect. If we cannot stay calm, if we feel that we are missing something or that there is something much more interesting to do or see, we will not be able to concentrate.

Our attention pays the bill. And this bill is so high that psychologist Daniel Goleman went so far as to argue that we are facing "a dangerous crossroads for humanity" because without attention we lose our ability to think and make decisions for ourselves. "Attention, in all its variants, constitutes a mental value which, despite being little recognized (and sometimes underestimated), has a strong influence on the way we move in life".

How are they stealing our attention?

Daniel Goleman refers to cognitive impatience as a state of "continuous partial attention". It would be a kind of astonishment induced by the bombardment of data from various sources of information. In practice, we expose ourselves to so much information that we simply can't process it properly, so we only offer partial attention to every stimulus, be it reading, watching a movie or having a conversation.

This bombardment of information inevitably generates careless shortcuts, it means that we develop less effective attention habits and, although we are apparently present and focused, in reality our attention is so divided that we cannot reflect on what we are reading or hearing.

A study conducted at the universities of Aberdeen and British Columbia revealed that when we read, our mind usually spends between 20 and 40% of the time wandering. The same thing happens in a conversation, so it's no wonder that we can't remember much of the message later on because we've lost important bits of it.

Goleman explains that "the more distracted we are while processing that fabric and the longer the time elapsed until we realize that we have been distracted, the bigger the hole in the net will be and the more things will escape us as a result. ".

The danger of cognitive impatience is not reduced to mere forgetfulness, its implications go far beyond. To understand them, we need to understand how attention works.

Top attention and bottom attention: a two-way path that is blocked

Our brains have two separate mental systems that function relatively independently. There is less attention, which works behind the scenes involuntarily, warns us of dangers and takes control when we perform repetitive tasks, when we are running on autopilot. There is therefore a higher and voluntary attention that has a reflective character.

Cognitive impatience attacks precisely the higher attention, the one that improves our awareness, critical capacity, deliberation and planning. When we move from one stimulus to another, our attention is drawn only to what we consider dangerous or that has a huge emotional impact. Of the 20 titles on which our eyes rest, only the one that has an emotional resonance will strike us.

The problem is that this tendency makes us very vulnerable, because when a stimulus triggers an intense emotional reaction it can also produce an emotional hijacking, meaning that "our attention narrows further and grasps what worries us, while our memory reorganizes itself, favoring the emergence of any memory relevant to the threat we face […] and, the more intense the emotion, the greater our fixation will be. Emotional abduction is, so to speak, the glue of attention, ”according to Goleman.

In other words, giving in to cognitive impatience takes away our control and the ability to think and decide for ourselves. It enslaves us to emotions, emotions that others (read: advertising, politicians, ruling classes or just a close person) can manipulate at will. Without the ability to pay attention, we are easily malleable because we transform into zombies that run on autopilot perpetually on.

What is the use of knowing how to read if we do not reflect on the content? What's the point of spending hours with a friend if we don't pay attention to what he tells us? What is the use of "informing ourselves" if we do not take a critical attitude towards the news?

Trading our attention for the ephemeral and often irrelevant information that today's society "offers us with so much magnanimity" is simply not worth it.


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