I’ve read an interesting article in The Economist about the concept called “augmented cognition“. It’s a quite wide idea but the article concentrated on the software that is designed to reduce the number of interruptions to the user (be it a fighter pilot or a busy businessman). It tries to guess how busy the user is by analyzing user’s actions (typing pattern, applications open, windows content etc.) – but also brain waves or posture in front of the computer.

In a sense such a module or process could be a welcome part of a modern operating system. It would treat the user’s mind as another device or asset. This one is a device that can input all the time, but output towards it has to be limited, because it can easily overload or be put off-balance.

Indeed, as all practitioners of meditation know our mind requires some time to settle. For me it is about 10 to 15 minutes. Same goes with concentrating on a mental task – it takes time. If the task is intellectually challenging it requires even more time for uninterrupted, concentrated thinking. If it is an artistic task, then any interruption can be fatal to the inspiration of the artist (especially writer or composer). If it is complex problem solving or conceptualizing then solution won’t come without dedicated thinking time.

So it would be really cool if the OS could shield us from e-mails or IM messages that don’t require immediate attention, yet allow those that do to get through. I can easily envision such a feature being built by Apple into new version of their OS X. It would be then wrapped with easy to use yet clean and beautiful user interface. And it would work.

But does this approach solve the real problem behind the limited attention span everybody laments? In some places, like the jet fighter’s cockpit, definitely yes. But for the general population of computer users probably not, because the source of the problem is that the users want to be constantly connected, in touch with others etc. I noticed, for example, that even if notifications are switched off I jump to the e-mail program frequently to check whether something arrived or not.

Solution to that is, of course, turning the damn things off. But even the windowed, multi-tasking interface can be a hurdle. That’s where simple solutions come to help.

Check out the Writing Room – simple, yet very useful app for OS X which brings back all the pluses of the old, all-text interface. It’s just a simple text editor that works full screen. So there is nothing there on the screen except your text. You can work on it totally oblivious to anything going on in another windows. Great stuff. I use it now to type longer e-mails, parts of important documents, even these blog posts.

So, for a while I can live without augmented cognition. Augmented concentration seems to be enough for the time being.