Acquiring new information requires particularly focused attention, which includes the ability to ignore distractions. In order to absorb the information contained in a CNN newscast, for example, we must not only direct our attention to the person talking, but also filter out the running headlines, news updates, and financial ticker on the lower part of the screen. Torkel Klingberg, a professor of cognitive neuroscience at Karolinska Institute in Sweden and author of The Overflowing Brain, puts it simply: “If we do not focus our attention on something, we will not remember it.” In other words, attention is a critical component of learning.

Michael Posner, a researcher who has dedicated his career to studying attention and a professor emeritus of psychology at the University of Oregon, explains attention as a system of three networks—alerting, orienting, and executive. Alerting refers to the state of wakefulness necessary to attend to information, while orienting is the process by which we respond to stimuli, such as movement, sound, or noise. Executive attention is the highest-order network, the one that we have conscious control over. If we are trying to study for a test or read a novel, we use it to direct and maintain our focus, as well as to suppress our reaction to competing stimuli like the din of a nearby conversation or television.

The information-saturated environment that we live in is, unsurprisingly, extremely demanding of our attention. Modern life—both at work and at home—has become so information-rich that Edward Hallowell, a Boston-area psychiatrist, believes many of us suffer from what he calls an attention-deficit trait, a culturally induced form of attention-deficit disorder. As he pointed out in a 2005 interview with CNET News, “We’ve been able to overload manual labor. But never before have we so routinely been able to overload brain labor.” According to Hallowell and other psychiatrists, all these competing inputs prevent us from assimilating information. “What your brain is best equipped to do is to think, to analyze, to dissect, and create,” he explains. “And if you’re simply responding to bits of stimulation, you won’t ever go deep.” Journalist John Lorinc noted as much in an elegant article on distraction in the April 2007 issue of The Walrus:

It often seems as though the sheer glut of data itself has supplanted the kind of focused, reflective attention that might make this information useful in the first place. The dysfunction of our information environment is an outgrowth of its extraordinary fecundity. Digital communications technology has demonstrated a striking capacity to subdivide our attention into smaller and smaller increments; increasingly, it seems as if the day’s work has become a matter of interrupting the interruptions.

In a recent report, Information Overload: We Have Met the Enemy and He Is Us, the research firm Basex concluded that interruptions take up nearly 30 percent of a knowledge worker’s day and end up costing American businesses $650 billion annually. Other studies show that interruptions cause significant impairments in performance on IQ tests.

In many ways, the modern age—and the Internet, in particular—is a veritable minefield of distractions. This poses a central challenge to news organizations whose mandate is to inform the public. Research by Pablo Boczkowski, who teaches communication studies at Northwestern University, has revealed that when we consume news online we do so for significantly less time than in print and that we do it while we’re working. Further complicating matters is the disruptive nature of online advertising. Intrusive Web advertisements—washingtonpost.com recently featured one in which a Boeing helicopter flies right across the text of a news story—exploit our orienting network, which evolved to respond quickly to novel stimuli. Could we train ourselves to suppress our tendency to be distracted by such advertising? “You can get somewhat better, but it’s hard to resist because it’ll produce orienting,” Posner explains. “The way you resist it is you bring your attention back as quickly as you can.” Yet even if we were somehow able to eliminate ads, the sheer number of articles, headlines, and video and audio feeds on news Web sites makes focused attention difficult. Having to decide where to direct our attention and then maintain it makes reading and retaining news online a formidable task.

The Attention Economy

One of the most useful frameworks for understanding journalism’s challenges and behavior in the information age is the notion of the attention economy. Economics is the study of the allocation of resources and the basic principles of supply and demand, after all, and about a decade ago a handful of economists and scholars came up with the concept of the attention economy as a way of wrestling with the problem of having too much information—an oversupply, if you will—and not enough time or people to absorb it all.

Bree Nordenson a former assistant editor of CJR.