The Problem of Split Attention

In a heart rate session today I was in nice focus and high coherence until I thought of a to-do that I had to take care of later in the day. There was a navigational “I have to be somewhere else” feel and at that moment my RR interbeat interval went sideways as shown below in the red circle:

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What was happening? In that moment I was trying to hold two things in my attention – one my breath as it followed the up and down journey of my interbeat interval, and the second the phone call I had to make. My nervous system then dropped the variability of my heart rate.

After recognizing the moment of split attention I returned my attention to my breath and the variability returned. In this case thought clearly triggered a change in variability, and releasing the thought returned the variability to its start point.

What was happening? A hypothesis is that I overwhelmed my conscious processing capacity of 126 bits per second as described by Csikszentmihalyi’s concept of Flow. Flow is a very fashionable framework and I think it is useful. Three things are necessary for Flow when undertaking a task – clear goals, clear feedback and a perceived balance of challenge versus perceived skills.

The task I was engaged in was focussing on my heart rate for 30 minutes. I perceived that I could make the phone call, so I was not out of balance in that sense. There was no feedback change. I think what happened is that I questioned my goals – should I instead be making the phone call versus sitting measuring heart rate variability?

Maintaining the integrity of moment to moment attention somehow has to be tied into how I prioritize my actions. From where does the framework for prioritizing actions come? It may be a shortcut to maintaining a lower level of stress.

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