Split Attention versus Mindfulness?

Recent trends encouraging mindfulness have pointed our awareness to the benefits of directing our full attention to one thing at a time, giving that thing our full focus and presence of mind. When it comes to things like eating mindlessly, multi-tasking, checking facebook while our loved ones are talking to us- to name just a few examples- learning to slow down and pay full and complete attention to the moment or task at hand- can be extremely beneficial. Staying in the moment helps us do things right, stay aware of what we are doing, feel complete in the quality of the interaction or experience, and protects us from feeling overwhelmed by racing thoughts and competing attention-grabbers.

But there are also times when paying attention to more than one thing at a time has its upsides. And I’m not just talking about learning to juggle the millions of things that are pulling for our time and attention, nor am I talking about dividing our conscious attention (trying to pay attention on purpose to certain information or stimuli) to more than one thing at a time.

What I’m referring to is the helpful effect at times of dividing our attention between non-conscious tasks and more focused mental processing. Splitting attention in this way can help with emotional regulation, conversations in relationships, and distress tolerance.

For example, most people know how much easier it can be to engage a teenager in a difficult conversation when either one of you is doing something else at the same time…such as when you’re driving, the two of you are cooking together, or he/she is playing with his/her cellphone. EMDR (eye movement desensitization and reprocessing) therapy relies on a similar dual attention model in which attention is simultaneously split between some form of soothing stimulation and trauma-related experience, as well as between a focus on the past as well as the present. And child therapists know that children talk and process their experiences much better while they’re doing something else at the same time that engages a different part of the mind/body, such as playing, hearing a story that connects to their struggles, or engaging in some form of creative expression. And for those who tend to get lost in negative feelings or racing thoughts, trying to do something that requires focused attention from a different part of the mind- such as doing a puzzle or working out- can be a helpful way to think things through without getting totally lost in them.

Can you think of other examples of how split attention helps us process our mental experiences? I’d be interested to hear about them!