The Distracted Mind: Attention in the Information Age

May 4, 2021
Minute Read

The human mind has generated astonishing things, from sockets to space exploration, boleros to biomedical engineering, AI to self-referential alliteration. Yet the same brain whose cognitive capacities can compose symphonies and cure diseases also misplaces the car keys and forgets to take out the trash. Why? 

In his book The Distracted Mind (2016), Adam Gazzaley defines cognitive control as a set of abilities that include attention, working memory, and goal management. Our cognitive control is often undermined by interference, which consists of “both distractions from irrelevant information and interruptions by our attempts to simultaneously pursue multiple goals.” As Gazzaley explains, a system’s susceptibility to interference is directly proportional to its complexity. Since our brain is the most complex biological structure in evolutionary history, it’s no wonder we are so vulnerable to distractions. 

Though we are quick to blame modern technology for our distracted minds, our vulnerability to interference actually predates the smartphone by tens of millions of years, mirroring behaviors detected in other primates with whom we share a common ancestor. There was a time when distractibility was evolutionarily advantageous, as it propelled foraging species to seek out new environments before the food supply ran out in a given location. Similar to a squirrel foraging for acorns, the human mind skittishly forages for information to avoid diminishing returns. 

The Information Age presents a new extreme in terms of interference, as we are constantly bombarded with digital media and other stimuli. As Gazzaley writes, “In many ways, we are ancient brains in a high tech world.” Recent studies report that adults and teenagers check their cell phones every six minutes during waking hours, which adds up to over 150 times a day. Modern technology has not only facilitated but effectively normalized task-switching and media-multitasking (how many tabs are open on your screen at this very moment?). 

Yet our ability to effectively distribute, divide, and sustain attention is quite primitive. We are not actually capable of rapidly switching between or simultaneously engaging in multiple tasks, despite our best attempts. In fact, doing so dangerously undermines our cognitive capacities. A study at Stanford University indicated that multitasking can lead to long term memory impairment, and another study’s MRI scans on the brains of multitaskers revealed less brain density in the anterior cingulate cortex, which controls empathy and emotions. Meanwhile, the consulting company Basex estimates that businesses lose $650 billion a year due to employees’ distractibility, which makes sense considering that we lose 80 IQ points when we get distracted by a text during a meeting. 

But all is not lost. It’s possible to reclaim our attention and take control over our cognition by exercising, spending time in nature, and most importantly, meditating. Clinical studies have shown that the practice of meditation increases attention span whilst reducing anxiety and the symptoms of chronic pain and depression.

Meditating with the Soundworks app for just 10 minutes is a great way to develop a daily practice. Further research also shows sound meditation can foster significant improvements in brain health and overall well being, not to mention productivity. 

You might still misplace your car keys from time to time, but your enhanced cognitive capacity will improve your performance in all areas of your life. Da Vinci may have been a genius, but the fact that he didn’t own an iPad couldn’t have hurt!

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