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Thursday, December 1, 2016

Driven to Distraction

The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High-Tech World by Adam Gazzaley
and Larry Rosen (MIT Press, 2016,) reviewed by Steve Gladis, Dec. 2016.
1.     Overview. A basic premise of this book: We have an evolutionary and survivalist need to access information. We literally forage for important information, much like food foraging. In fact, novelty and information trigger our brain’s reward-dopamine system. However, modern access to huge volumes of information creates an overload and the frustration associated with it. This book outlines why and how we’re distracted, especially in an e-world full of competing images and sounds. The big problem: Our ability to set goals is far more evolved than our goal-enactment abilities. And given the amount of e-interference today, goal interference looms over us constantly. The authors describe the conflict between goal setting and cognitive control; attention setting and managing goals resulting from distractions; and, interruptions and multitasking. The 3 HUGE disrupters in our current world are the internet, cell phones, and email. Finally, the authors offer strategies to combat such distraction and make us more resilient by employing education, cognitive training, certain video games, physical exercise, pharmaceuticals, and nature exposure. In addition, here’s a TED talk that will orient you to their work.
2.     Cognition and Control. In Section I, the authors discuss how our limited cognitive control wrestles with interference, distraction (both internal and external) and poor performance.  Interference appears as ‘noise,” like task switching (erroneously labeled “multitasking”), which distracts us from our goals. For example, you go to the pantry but forget why you went there!  Our brains have evolved over time to develop complex goals and focus on them using cognitive control by using attention, working memory and goal management—all of which have limitations and are affected by age and daily circumstances. Unfortunately, multitasking is associated with novelty, pushes the brain’s rewards button (dopamine system), and is more fun than focusing! Example: I just exported a quote from this book to OneNote, then tried to sync it, couldn’t find the sync button, and spent 4 minutes trying to locate it. Now I’m trying to get back to my goal—writing this review!
3.     Modern Behavior. Today’s technologies offer us a “foraging” feast and an unlimited ability to trigger the pleasure of a dopamine (rewards) hit. This external technology is ubiquitous, addictive, and harmful—all at the same time. Thus, the constant presence of technology affects our safety (texting and driving); education (website visits and texts during class); sleep (screen time and sleep interference); and health (spending too much time sitting and not moving).  Further, this technical interference especially impacts people with ADHD, anxiety, depression, and autism. The danger: “attentional blindness” is paying too much attention to our top-down brain functions and not enough time to our bottom-up sensory functions—we lose track of what’s happening in the moment. People get hit by cars and bump into walls because they’re too distracted by their phones. In fact, 23% of all car crashes involve distraction by using a cell phone! At work, interruptions are constant, especially in open offices, and it can take up to 30 minutes to get back on task. To make up for interruptions, people work faster, demand more of their brains, and experience more stress and higher frustration. Socially we are often “alone together,” paying way more attention to our cellphones and less to people around us. In fact, the mere presence of a cell phone (iPhone effect) had negative consequences in social interaction, such as a lack of empathy. The overuse of technology has been associated with psychological problems. Sleep is critically affected by screen time, especially an hour before bedtime—it inhibits melatonin release. Technology—especially the internet, smartphones and social media—has had a serious effect on the key domains of Attention (selectivity, distribution, sustainability, processing speed); Working Memory (capacity); and, Goal Management (multitasking and task switching).

4.     What to Do. With important tasks, turn off any distracting devices. However, unimportant, boring tasks might benefit from paced disruptions. Augmenting  our knowledge of technology’s effects on the brain, decreasing our access to it, diminishing boredom and reducing anxiety are the keys to getting this technology danger under control. Here are just a few cautions and tips to diminish distractions. Driving: texting while driving increases the risk of a crash 23 times! And, just using a cell phone while driving is like being legally drunk. Boredom: Conversation in a car is OK unless it requires deep cognitive thought. Audio books seem to be safe and don’t measurably conflict with attention in a major way. Anxiety: To avoid compulsive message checking, inform your friends when you’re unavailable and set up auto-responses. Critical Assignments: Avoid multitasking to increase productivity and reduce stress. Take regular breaks. Limit yourself to one screen at a time. Reduce open programs on the computer. Limit daily contact with email and set time limits. Listen to your favorite music (I prefer instrumentals)—symphony or smooth jazz.  Rest your eyes; try the 20-20-20 rule: every 20 minutes take a 20 second break and focus on things 20 feet away. Take short 10-minute naps. Take nature walks. Keep phones out of sight. Have weekly 15-min. family meetings. Have family meals—for best child psychological and family relationships. Remove technology from the bedroom. While drugs like Ritalin and Adderall may help people with ADHD (a burgeoning class in a distracted world), the side effects, including addiction, for healthy people taking them can be negative. 

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