distracted mind

The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a Technological World by Adam Gazzaley and Larry D. Rosen, MIT Press, Cambridge/London, 2016.

“And the faculty of voluntarily bringing back a wandering attention, over and over again, is the very root of judgment, character and will. No one is compos sui if he have it not. An education which should improve this faculty would be the education par excellence.”

                                    William James 


“The Distracted Mind” explores the “daily challenges we face with the highly engaging but extremely distracting high-tech world we now inhabit, from the dual points of view of a psychologist and a neuroscientist.” It is a book for experts and laymen both, and requires of the reader a serious attitude that pays off in spades when it comes to understanding how our evolved brains organize goal-setting, working memory, and attention in a world that buzzes with confusion and so-called “information”. There has been a lot written about how our modern lives are negatively influenced by the new personal technology of “communication and information”—television, computer screens, and smart phones primarily. Anyone interested in how our handheld devices negatively affects our ability to work, relate to others and concentrate, should pay strict attention to books like this and spread the word.

The very essence of the human being is the ability to set long-term goals, a function of the recently evolved pre-fontal cortex. Yet despite this high-level ability, humans are natural foragers, both for food and information. Our old brains are naturally distractible; after all, the savannahs of Africa were dangerous places and foraging for information a necessary activity. Thus, our ability to set high-level goals collides head-on with the brains fundamental limitations in cognitive control: attention, working memory and goal management. According to the authors, “This collision results in our extreme sensitivity to goal interference from both distractions by irrelevant information and interruptions by attempted “multitasking” (which is better called “serial partial attention”). This noise degrades our perceptions, influences our language, hinders effective decision making, and derails our ability to capture and recall detailed memories of life events.” The authors show how distraction negatively affects our work lives and stresses our relationships, our sleep and our emotional stability. It is a savagely discouraging picture, one that is reflected in every day life all around us. “The negative impact is even greater for those of us with undeveloped or impaired cognitive control, such as children, teens, and older adults, as well as many clinical populations.”

The authors assess real world behaviors in a landscape rich in “modern information”; people no longer sit and enjoy a meal with each other; nobody can stand to be “alone”; many people suffer from low-grade neuroses like FOMO (“fear of missing out”) and nagging anxiety and boredom as powerful external forces intruding on our emotional lives. The authors delve deeply into work, relationships and sleep, as well as clinical conditions like ADHD, depression, narcissism, extreme stress and bipolar disorder

Finally, the authors discuss how to combat the distress of constant distraction. Largely, we must meta-cognize our situation, ie., to contemplate and understand our Selves. There is a way to harness or brain’s plasticity to strengthen our “Distracted Mind.” Examined is traditional education, cognitive training, video games, pharmaceuticals, physical exercise, nature exposure, neuro-feedback and brain stimulation. The goal is not to give up our devices completely, but to regain our emotional and cognitive ability to attend—to remediate our situation.

Without attention we are lost as humans, distracted, busy, tired, and unhappy. This is a must read book.