Book Report, stress

Book Report: The Distracted Mind

Adam Gazzaley and Larry D. Rosen, The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High-Tech World (MIT Press)

This is one of those books that causes immediate and pronounced self-reflection on behaviors. Get ready, this includes discussions about phones and facebook. HIGHLY recommnded book.

How about a challenge as you read on…how many times do you check your phone before the end of this post?

These are some of the highlights I saved on my kindle, so direct quotes from the book:

  • Goal interference occurs when you reach a decision to accomplish a specific goal (e.g., retrieve something from the refrigerator, complete a work assignment, engage in a conversation, drive your car) and something takes place to hinder the successful completion of that goal. The interference can either be generated internally, presenting as thoughts within your mind, or generated externally, by sensory stimuli such as restaurant chatter, beeps, vibrations, or flashing visual displays (figure 1.1). Goal interference, originating from either your internal or external environments (often both), can occur in two distinct varieties—distractions and interruptions—based on your decision about how you manage the interference.1
  • Interruptions are the other major source of goal interference. The difference from distractions is that interruptions happen when you make a decision to concurrently engage in more than one task at the same time, and even if you attempt to switch rapidly between them.
  • Our cognitive control abilities that are necessary for the enactment of our goals have not evolved to the same degree as the executive functions required for goal setting.
  • Our cognitive control is really quite limited: we have a restricted ability to distribute, divide, and sustain attention; actively hold detailed information in mind; and concurrently manage or even rapidly switch between competing goals.
  • a study by Dr. Rosen’s lab found that the typical teen and young adult believes that he or she can juggle six to seven different forms of media at the same time.7 Other studies have shown that up to 95 percent of the population report media multitasking each day, with activity in more than one domain occupying approximately a third of the day.8
  • US adults and teenagers check their phone up to 150 times a day, or every six to seven minutes that they are awake.9
  • In regard to rewards, researchers have shown that novelty is associated with reward processing in our brains.13
  • In addition, the act of receiving an earlier reward is often more highly valued, even if a delayed reward has greater overall associated value.14 This phenomenon, known as the “temporal discounting of rewards,” is a strong influence on impulsive behaviors and so may also play a role in the inherent drive to seek the immediate gratification that comes from switching to new tasks sooner rather than later.
  • The answer is that at our core we are information-seeking creatures, so behaviors that maximize information accumulation are optimal, at least from that viewpoint. This notion is supported by findings that molecular and physiological mechanisms that originally developed in our brain to support food foraging for survival have now evolved in primates to include information foraging.15 Data to support this assertion rest largely on observations that the dopaminergic system, which is crucial for all reward processing, plays a key role in both basic food-foraging behavior in lower vertebrates and higher-order cognitive behaviors in monkeys and humans that are often dissociated from clear survival benefits.16 The role of the dopamine system has actually been shown to relate directly to information-seeking behavior in primates. Macaque monkeys, for example, respond to receiving information similarly to the way they respond to primitive rewards such as food or water. Moreover, “single dopamine neurons process both primitive and cognitive rewards, and suggest that current theories of reward-seeking must be revised to include information-seeking.”17
  • Since humans seem to exhibit an innate drive to forage for information in much the same way that other animals are driven to forage for food, we need to consider how this “hunger” is now fed to an extreme degree by modern technological advances that deliver highly accessible information; yet another reason for why we are ancient brains living in a high-tech world.
  • Neuroscience research has helped us understand that perception is not a passive process; sights, sounds, and smells of the world do not simply flood into our brain. Rather, the inward flow of information is sculpted and pruned by goals in much the same way that our actions are, resulting in our perceptions being an interpretation of reality and not a veridical representation. Those flowers you decide to pay attention to actually do look much redder to you and smell much sweeter than the ones you chose to ignore. Goals thus influence both sides of the cycle, perception and action.
  • The mediators of our top-down goals comprise another amazing collection of abilities that fall under the umbrella of cognitive control. This includes three major faculties: (1) attention, (2) working memory, and (3) goal management, each consisting of subcomponent processes.
  • However, the effectiveness of attention relies on much more than whether the spotlight is focused or not. It is also critical when, where, and how long the spotlight is wielded. These three aspects of attention that build on its selectivity are known as expectation, directionality, and sustainability.
  • Goal management serves the critical function of our mental traffic controller. Of course, success in actually accomplishing multiple goals is dependent upon integrating goal management with attention—the spotlight—and working memory—the bridge—in a fluid and flexible manner.
  • Decades of research have now shown that while focusing on relevant information is of course critical to accomplishing our goals, ignoring irrelevant information is just as important.
  • The fact that ignoring is an active process is critical to understanding the Distracted Mind because it emphasizes that it takes resources to filter out what is irrelevant.
  • This means that your goal of focusing on a conversation in a restaurant may be successful, but your ability to ignore the chatter all around you may be failing. If so, you will find yourself susceptible to one of the two types of goal interference: distraction.
  • Even though we gave no instruction to participants to switch between these two tasks, we see that is actually what is happening in their brain. They do not maintain the memory network at the same level when the selective attention network is engaged. Rather, they dynamically switch between these two cognitive control networks. The results of our study are consistent with many other studies that have shown when we simultaneously pursue multiple goals that compete for cognitive control resources, our brains switch between tasks—they do not parallel process.
  • This experiment revealed that focus was not the primary determinant of high-level working memory performance; rather, memory depended more on effectively ignoring distractions.
  • failure to effectively ignore irrelevant information has direct consequences for our success at holding relevant information in mind for brief periods of time.3
  • The results showed that the negative impact of passively viewing the pictures on memory recall was even worse if we disrupted prefrontal cortex function, thus supporting our hypothesis that prefrontal cortex networks support memory recall by reducing distractions.
  • A clever research study used an iPhone app to randomly present questions to college students asking if at that very moment they were focusing their attention on what they were doing or if their mind was wandering. Strikingly, the study revealed that 47 percent of randomly sampled moments throughout the day were occurrences of mind wandering.8 In addition, they found that people were generally less happy while mind wandering, seemingly independent of the type of activity that they were engaged in at the time. Mind wandering has been shown to have a negative impact on cognitive performance, and it has been associated with deficits in working memory, fluid intelligence, and SAT performance.9
  • Externally generated, bottom-up influences by sights and sounds and internally generated mind wandering both blunt the sharpness of our attentional selectivity.
  • In general, our ability to distribute our attention is quite limited.
  • children diagnosed with ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) had difficulties sustaining attention when they were assessed using standard boring lab tests, but not when playing engaging video games.
  • Another aspect of limitations on the speed of attentional processing is that it not only takes time to allocate our attention when we want to, but it also takes time to disengage our attention if it was captured by bottom-up influences.
  • This failure of our brain to truly multitask at a neural level represents a major limitation in our ability to manage our goals. The process of neural network switching is associated with a decrease in accuracy, often for both tasks, and a time delay compared to doing one task at a time. Known as multitasking or task-switching costs, these decrements in performance occur for both types of goal management. You can think of these costs as the price you pay for trying to do more than one thing at a time.
  • Where older adults suffered a deficit was in suppressing the irrelevant information. Thus, we discovered that their main attentional issue was that they are more distractible than younger adults.13 The Gazzaley Lab published the results of this study as evidence that selectivity impairments in older adults were the result of a neural deficit in the mechanisms responsible for goal-directed, top-down suppression.
  • There is a growing consensus of research studies that support the conclusion that attentional deficiencies in selectivity are not the consequence of an inability of older adults to focus on their goals, but rather are the consequence of a selective deficit in ignoring distractions. We have recently shown that this selectivity deficit is associated with age-related alterations in prefrontal cortex networks; and not just functional changes, but also structural changes in the volume of a region in the middle part of the prefrontal cortex, as well as diminished integrity of the white matter that connect this area with other brain structures. We also found that older adults with these brain changes were more distractible on a working memory test.16
  • Older adults, however, do not show neural signs of suppressing the brain activity associated with a distracting face until at least half a second. These results suggest that if distractions are not suppressed almost immediately, they have time to create interference with the processing of relevant information, in turn degrading both working memory and long-term memory performance.18 In other words, our distraction filter needs to stop the flow of noise from entering our brain at the entrance gate.
  • Unfortunately, selectivity deficits along with accompanying delays in processing speed are not even the whole story; limitations in sustainability and distribution of attention also contribute to attention challenges experienced by older adults.
  • Interestingly, the brain changes that underlie goal interference deficits experienced by older adults—distraction and interruption—are mechanistically distinct: distractibility is caused by an inefficient filter that results in excessive processing of irrelevant information in the visual cortex, whereas multitasking impairments are caused by a failure to effectively switch between networks involved in performing two tasks.
  • surmised from observations of your own mental sluggishness after a bad night’s sleep, acute sleep deprivation negatively impacts cognitive control in a major way. Notably, it has been shown to impair sustained attention.
  • One study, for example, took brain scans of adults three and a half years apart and found that those who had the most sleep difficulties showed a more rapid decline in brain volume.35 More specifically related to cognitive control, however, is research showing that just one night of poor sleep can lead to less efficient filtering out of important information from junk as well as inefficient visual tracking, both of which, of course, underlie the Distracted Mind.
  • one study of seven- to eleven-year-old children in Quebec, Canada, asked parents of one group to have their children go to bed earlier than normal (averaging a bit more than half an hour of additional nightly sleep) while the other half went to bed an hour later than normal. Classroom teachers rated their behavior without knowing which group they were in and found that the sleep-deprived children showed reduced cognitive control, particularly in the areas of attention, increased impulsivity, and frustration.
  • nearly two-thirds of the work episode interruptions were self-generated, and most of those involved some form of mediated communication using a technological device. In fact, of the approximately eighty-six daily changes in an employee’s work activity, the workers themselves generated sixty-five of them internally, with the vast majority involving “checking in”
  • We are self-interrupting and not even aware of how often we are diverting our attention from our main task—in this case, our job—to another task that may be completely unrelated to work.
  • According to the study’s authors, “This is worrisome because students begin to feel like they need to have the TV on or they need to continually check their text messages or computer while they do their homework. It’s not helping them, but they get an emotional reward that keeps them doing it.”35
  • Minute-by-minute observations showed that the typical student couldn’t stay focused on work for more than three to five minutes.
  • Strikingly, the predictors of a lower GPA from extensive data collected about the students were: percentage of time on-task, studying strategies, total media time during a typical day, and preference for task-switching rather than working on a task until it was completed. In addition, by examining the websites that students visited during that fifteen-minute sample, we uncovered a fifth predictor of a lower GPA. Only one website visited predicted a lower GPA: Facebook. And it did not matter whether the students visited it once or fifteen times. Once was enough to predict lower school performance.
  • The authors propose that “the difference between the effects of passive listening to music and active engagement in texting or social media highlights a major shift in the intrusion of media in everyday life. Traditional media, such as radio, television or music, which can be ignored as background noise, are fundamentally different from human interactions via text message 
  • According to many research studies, most students send and receive text messages during class, and those who do get lower grades.9 In a study by Dr. Rosen’s lab, students were sent varying amounts of text messages at crucial points of a videotape lecture and asked to respond.10 Those who received eight text messages during the thirty-minute lecture performed an entire grade lower in a test of the lecture material than the average of those who received no texts or only four texts. Interestingly, according to another study, students are aware of the potential downsides of such interruptions.
  • One study found that those students who used cell phones and texted more often during class showed more anxiety, had lower GPAs, and were less satisfied with life than students who used phones and texted less frequently.
  • Overall, it appears that college students who use inessential technology either during class sessions or while studying face difficulties on both an academic and personal level.14
  • When asked directly if they saw a clown, still only one in four of the cell-phone-using students reported seeing it compared with half of single walkers, 61 percent of music listeners, and 71 percent of walking pairs. Whatever was happening between the user and his or her phone appears to have inhibited their ability to identify such a strong bottom-up event in the immediate neighborhood.
  • Given that research shows that the incidence of accidents with handsfree phones and handheld phones are equivalent, it is likely that the primary cause is neither physical nor visual but rather an issue of attention—one of our major cognitive control abilities with distinct limitations.29
  • interruptions by asserting that “we humans are Pavlovian; even though we know we’re just pumping ourselves full of stress, we can’t help frantically checking our e-mail the instant the bell goes ding.”37
  • Strikingly, as the authors concluded, “the mere presence of mobile phones inhibited the development of interpersonal closeness and trust, and reduced the extent to which individuals felt empathy and understanding from their partners.”
  • Yet another similar study by researchers at the University of Southern Maine found that “simply the presence of a cell phone and what it might represent (i.e., social connections, broader social network, etc.) can be similarly distracting and have negative consequences in a social interaction.”
  • A recent study by Professor Bill Thornton and his colleagues at the University of Southern Maine demonstrated that when performing complex tasks that require our full attention even the mere presence of the experimenter’s phone (not the participant’s phone) led to distraction and worse performance.15 In the same study, the presence of a student’s silenced phone in a classroom had an equally negative impact on attention.
  • our relationship with technology has spawned a variety of “conditions” that include phantom pocket vibration syndrome, FOMO (fear of missing out), and nomophobia (fear of being out of mobile phone contact), all of which are centered on a need to be connected constantly. Phantom vibrations are an interesting phenomenon. A mere ten years ago, if you felt a tingling near your pants pocket you would reach down and scratch the area to relieve the presumed itch. Now the very same neuronal activity promotes a need for us to check our smartphone—sometimes even if we are not carrying one in our pocket at the time—as it is assumed that our phone just vibrated, signaling an incoming alert or notification. Two studies have discovered that nearly everyone experiences these false vibrations often.49
  • Overall, symptoms of psychiatric disorders were predicted by some combination of daily technology use and preference for multitasking even after factoring out the impact of anxiety about missing out on technology and technology-related attitudes.
  • A recent article in Wired that summarizes research on touchscreen use by children includes the following quote from the author in his role as a parent: But these screens have a weird dual nature: They make us more connected and more isolated at the same time. When I hand my daughter an iPad with an interactive reading app, she dives in and reads along. But she also goes into a trance. It’s disturbing because, frankly, it reminds me of myself. I’m perpetually distracted, staring into my hand, ignoring the people around me. Hit Refresh and get a reward, monkey. Feed the media and it will nourish you with @replies and Likes until you’re hungry and bleary and up way too late alone in bed, locked in the feedback loop. What will my daughter’s loop look like? I’m afraid to find out.12
  • with ADHD are facing what the researchers have termed a “bottleneck,” in which executive functions and cognitive control are stalled.
  • Across all switches, Yeykelis and his colleagues discovered that the arousal level started rising an average of twelve seconds prior to a switch but, more importantly, early arousal was most prominent when switching from “work-related” screens such as word processing or Internet information searches to “entertainment-related” screens including watching a video, gaming, and, of course, Facebook. In fact, while looking at work-related screens, arousal was quite low and the anticipatory increase was quite pronounced as the student prepared to leave the boring schoolwork and find something more stimulating such as an entertainment-related screen.
  • boredom is “the aversive experience of wanting, but being unable, to engage in satisfying activity.”5 Eastwood and his colleagues go further in clarifying boredom as an aversive state that occurs when we • are not able to successfully engage attention with internal (e.g., thoughts or feelings) or external (e.g., environmental stimuli) information required for participating in satisfying activity, • are focused on the fact that we are not able to engage attention and participate in satisfying activity, and • attribute the cause of our aversive state to the environment. Eastwood further clarifies that a bored person is not just one who has nothing to do; rather, he or she wants to be stimulated and is unable to be. He calls it having an “unengaged mind.”6
  • In other words, this may all be cyclical: boredom drives frequent switching to new tasks → rapidly induced rewards → increased rate of boredom in nonstimulating information sources → rapid flattening of resource intake curve → quicker switch times → and so on.
  • The power of social media to increase our anxiety has been shown in numerous studies.
  • In one survey of 3,800 adults, Cisco Systems reported that nine in ten adults under the age of thirty fear not having their mobile phone.
  • This lack of metacognition—awareness and understanding of one’s own thought processes—impacts the MVT model in two ways. On the right side: not understanding the benefits of remaining in an information patch and not appreciating our internal states of anxiety and boredom.
  • Over the years more evidence has accrued that meditation techniques improve cognitive control, including sustained attention, speed of processing, and working memory capacity.15 In addition, one recent study took a step toward documenting real-world impact by showing meditation-induced improvements in the Graduate Record Examination (GRE) reading-comprehension test.16
  • effects revealed that gamers exhibit a superior ability to detect targets, at least in part as a result of being better able to suppress distractions.31 An fMRI study further revealed that gamers did not activate prefrontal cortex areas to the same degree as those who did not play video games in response to increasing attentional demands on a searching task.32 This suggests that gamers allocate their cognitive control resources more efficiently.
  • These findings have been complemented by an onslaught of fascinating data regarding neural changes induced by exercise, which span the gamut from increases in brain volume (both gray and white matter), nerve growth factors, blood flow, functional and structural connections, and even new neurons being born.58 Perhaps not surprisingly, this neural plasticity is accompanied by a host of cognitive benefits, a claim that has been supported by several meta-analysis studies.59
  • The general conclusion is that “lower-fit children may have more difficulty than higher-fit children in the flexible modulation of cognitive control processes to meet task demands.”61 This same relationship has been shown to exist for college-age adults.
  • hit by cars while distracted by their phones.63 This study found that higher-fit children were more successful in street crossing under all testing conditions. Moreover, higher-fit children were not negatively impacted by the phone and music distractions, while the lower-fit children showed worsened performance when either listening to music or talking on the phone compared to undistracted crossing.64
  • They have shown that aerobic exercise training for children results in improvements on cognitive control tasks.65
  • Here are some ideas based on research studies for planning restorative, stress-reducing breaks, each of which will take you only a few minutes. • Exercise—even for only twelve minutes—facilitates brain function and improves attention, as discussed in detail in chapter 10.21 • Train your eyes using the 20–20–20 rule: every twenty minutes take a twenty-second break and focus on objects twenty feet away. This changes your focal distance from inches to many feet and requires blood flow to brain areas that are not related to constant attention.22 • Expose yourself to nature. Consider using at least part of your break to get away from technology and spend a few minutes in a natural setting. Research has shown that just ten minutes in a natural environment can be restorative; even viewing pictures of nature can be restorative, as discussed in chapter 10.23 • Daydreaming, staring into space, doodling on paper, or any activity that takes you away from performing a specified task activates the “default mode network”—a network of interacting brain areas that most often indicate that you are daydreaming, thinking creatively, or just mind wandering—which is restorative for attention.24 • Short ten-minute naps have been shown to improve cognitive function. Longer naps work, too, as seen in a study of pilots who improved their reaction time after taking a thirty-minute nap.25 • Talking to other human beings, face to face or even on the telephone, reduces stress and has been shown to improve work performance.26 • Laugh! Read a joke book, look at comic strips, read a funny blog. A Loma Linda University study found that older adults who watched a funny video scored better on memory tests and showed reduced cortisol and increased endorphins and dopamine, meaning less stress and more energy and positive feelings.27 • Grab something to drink and a small snack.28 • Read a chapter in a fiction book. Recent research shows major brain shifts when reading immersive fiction.29

Since reading this book a couple years ago now, I have continually been assessing how to be less distracted by tech. It is an ongoing battle. Simply turning off noise alerts is a strat. The new iOS has a do not disturb function for minimizing interruptions, but there is no magic bullet fix (except airplane mode maybe). I will share some experiences I have had on this journey in other posts.

This Book Report collection is meant to provide some of the best take-home points from the health and science genre I read. I will continue to go thru my notes of the 160+ and counting (as of January 2019) Kindle books I have on file. To view ALL the notes I saved on this one AND many others without a Book Report post yet, THAT IS ALSO SEARCHABLE, please click here.


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