Watson and Homes were discussing a new case that they had been engaged to solve.

“Well,” Watson mused, “the only thing we know about the victim was that he smelled of alcohol.”

“Be careful, Watson,” said Sherlock. “Before long you will be imagining situations that are driven by the apparent use of alcohol. Which pub was he drinking at? Who was he drinking with? What was he drinking? Was he an alcoholic? Did he go to any groups like AA?”

“What’s the problem with that?” asked Watson.

“Well, you’re being driven by the only information you think is available. Just because it is available, doesn’t make it relevant. Trust me, more evidence will become available and until it does you cannot let what is in front of you right now, distort your thinking. It’s all about focus. For all you know, Watson, he had digestive problems and spewed out the one drink he had all night.”

“The digestive canal,” suggested Watson.

Sherlock nodded.

“Alimentary, my dear Watson.”

When we are reading material or studying information, it is the focus of our attention and, as Daniel Kahneman says, “Nothing in life is as important as you think it is, while you are thinking about it.”

Our focus and attention, not only engage available information, but typically exaggerate it, simply because it is available. For example, the news and media are heavily focused on the possibility of a recession. As you are reading all about it, the notion occupies your mind, focus and attention and tends to become overvalued. Humans can only think about one thing at a time.

Multi-tasking is simply task switching. Sure, we can change our focus in a matter of seconds, but this limitation means, as Kahneman points out above, that what we focus on is often exaggerated. Our focus generates not just ideas, but emotions and these can easily drive the thought process. For example, the ‘recession narrative’ availability, might have someone thinking about financial decisions to mitigate the impact of a recession. It might influence their business strategy or anything that might be impacted by a recession. This will happen when the media coverage is mere speculation, or has very little evidence to support the notion of a recession. We react because it is available and that gets our distorted focus and attention.

by Howard Rankin PhD, psychology and cognitive neuroscience