The Distracted Mind

With a looming deadline for a project, I like to clear my calendar, shut off the phones, and hide out in my office until the job is done. It’s my way of creating space for concentrated attention. Yet despite good intentions, I’m not always successful:

  • A random noise can wiggle into my ear and prompt me to investigate its source.
  • I might catch my name and wander what is being said.
  • My mind may wander or start fussing about something completely unrelated to the work at hand.
  • I may start thinking about the email or text messages that I’m missing and grab my phone to satisfy my curiosity.
  • Someone may interrupt my work to deal with an important matter.

With each interruption, I lose my train of thought and have to spend a bit of time getting back on track. It forces me to spend more time on task than I’d budgeted and may affect the quality of my work. Drs. Adam Gazzaley and Larry D. Rosen explore this all-too-common human foible in The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High Tech World.

As documented in prior posts, human cognition has evolved across the millennia to keep us alive. It allocates our finite processing capacity efficiently and effectively:

  • Amidst an ocean of stimuli, we can focus our attention like a spotlight. We determine which senses, spaces, or objects merit perception and action and which ones to ignore. Suppressing irrelevant data yields higher quality representations of the areas of focus.
  • We’re equipped with working memory to hold information active for brief periods of time. It serves as a bridge between current perceptions and future actions and functions best when unencumbered by distraction.
  • We can engage in task switching to manage multiple goals at the same time. Though we may harbor the illusion of parallel processing, our human brains only operate on one thing at a time even when competing tasks do not demand use of the same cognitive controls.

Our prefrontal cortex manages cognitive capacity in service of goal setting and enactment. It excels in evaluation, reasoning, decision making, organization, and planning. Once a direction has been set, it manages our attention, working memory, and task management systems to reach the destination. Extensive connections between the prefrontal cortex and all other brain regions enable continuous processing of sensory, emotional, and motor functions.

Sleep deprivation, stress, and intoxication downregulate our capacity for focused attention. We also lose this facility as we age. While we retain the capacity to direct our cognitive “spotlights,” we’re slow on the draw to weed out distractions. We give them leave to generate internal interference and mess with our working memory. We’re also less effective at task switching.

While distractions and interruptions get in the way of forward progress at any age, both evolved as essential survivalist instincts. When wandering the jungles seeking food or shelter, our ancestors needed to be alert to environmental changes that might signal a threat – the hissing or rattling of a poisonous snake, or the rustling of bushes as a predator nears. Those who were adept at sensing and reacting to new information moved quickly to protect themselves; the others likely perished. The Darwinian victors were also attuned to input that might lead to food, water, or other forms of gratification.

Unfortunately, the jungle in which we find ourselves today presents a gaggle of distractions that have no material bearing on our survival. Email, text, social media, and news alerts constantly vie for our attention. Seventy-five percent of us operate within 5 feet of our phones day and night; 80% of us reach for our phones upon awakening. Forty-one percent of us respond to email and 71% to text ASAP. We expect rapid respond and feel rebuffed when it is not forthcoming. It should come as no surprise that young adults task switch 27x per hour; older adults task switch 17x per hour. This elevated distractibility increases working hours, stress, frustration, time pressure, and effort. So why do we do it?

The human brain craves novelty; we’re driven to seek new information. When consigned to a single task, we may grow bored with what we’re doing and look for something to entertain us. We may get anxious to move on and start thinking about the next thing. We may experience FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out) and grab our phones to check on the latest news. We may tell ourselves that we have to respond to every alert. All such distractions and interruptions make us far less effective at managing our lives and the goals to which we have committed.

Recognizing the cost of unwanted distraction, the authors provide a bevy of behavioral adjustments to minimize them.

  • Focus on one project at a time in a distraction-free environment. Put away nonessential work materials – i.e., clear your desk! Limit yourself to one screen and close irrelevant apps.
  • Eliminate email, text, news, and other alerts. Set expectations for response times with family, friends, and colleagues.
  • Interleave periods of standing and sitting while working on the project.
  • Schedule brief breaks every 45-90 minutes to relieve boredom. Options include: exercise, work in the garden, daydream, take a power nap, have a snack, read a chapter of your book, laugh.

Beyond the foregoing behavioral modifications, the authors also provide recommendations for enhancing cognitive control:

  • Meditation trains the mind in focused attention and open monitoring of thoughts and feelings. Practitioners learn to acknowledge the latter and dismiss them rapidly. Meditation has been shown to improve sustained attention, processing speed, and working memory.
  • Computerized cognitive exercises adaptively challenge specific areas of cognitive capacity causing them to become stronger over time. As a case in point, Akili Interactive offers digital therapeutics to improve cognitive function. Their offerings were developing in collaboration with world renowned neuroscientists.
  • Judicial use of video games can also have a positive impact on attentional capacity, distributed attention, and speed of attentional processing. They’re demanding, adaptive, and fun!
  • Exercise! A steady diet of aerobics and strength training increases brain volume, nerve growth factors, blood flow, functional and structural connections, and neurogenesis.