Thomas Friedman is a three-time Pulitzer Prize winning journalist with the New York Times and author of the best-selling book about globalization, “The World Is Flat.” He recently introduced a new phrase to the English language: CONTINUOUS PARTIAL ATTENTION. This was explained as, “when you are on the Internet or cell phone or Blackberry while also watching TV, typing on your computer and answering a question from your child. That is, you are multitasking your way through the day, continuously devoting only partial attention to each act or person you encounter.”

The August/September, 2006, issue of “Scientific American MIND” included an article about how the brain decides on what to focus conscious attention.

A professor asked his class to watch a short video of two basketball teams and to count how many times the players in white T-shirts passed the ball. The students found that it wasn’t easy to keep their eyes on the moving ball, but most of them believed they counted correctly.

After the show, students were asked, “What did you think about the gorilla?” There was a shocked silence. He restarted the video, and after a few seconds a collective groan rippled through the room as the audience now realized that a person in an ape costume had walked right across the court, pausing in the middle to pound on his chest.

Psychologists Daniel J. Simons and Christopher F. Chabris showed this film at Harvard University for the first time in 1999. They were surprised by the results: Half of the observers missed the furry primate the first time they watched. How was that possible?

The answer was noted long before the experiment was conducted. William James, the father of American Psychology, wrote in his 1890 classic, “The Principles of Psychology,” that the capacity of consciousness is limited, which is the reason that we cannot pay attention to everything at once. Attention is selective. It impels consciousness to concentrate on certain stimuli to process them effectively.

So, when a person is watching TV or listening to the radio while studying, the multitasking splits the brain’s focus and lowers efficiency.

Perhaps you work with someone or know someone—such as a student—who could benefit by this awareness.