The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High-Tech World, Gazzaley, A. & Rosen, L. (M.I.T. Press, 2016)

This week I began reading The Distracted Mind, a fascinating look at the internal mechanisms of the human brain and how easily our brains are hijacked by the plethora of distractions present in modern life. Indeed, my decision to read this book is illustrative of the problem. My mission of focusing on a Growth Mindset throughout the Fall Quarter was derailed when I noticed a bright red book jacket on my shelf and I grabbed the book it encased. And am I glad I did.

The Distracted Mind brings us up to date on the latest brain research to help us understand the relationship between the prefrontal cortex (heretofore thought to be the center of cognitive control), and the broad range of neural networks present throughout the brain along with their combined impact on attention, working memory and processing speed. While we have strong goal setting capabilities, “interference – both distractions [internal and external] from irrelevant information and interruptions” [internal and external] by attempts to pursue multiple goals at the same time, make it difficult for us to carry through with our intended goals. (Gazzaley & Rosen, p. 3).

The book starts with the premise that “[d]espite our brain’s inherent sensitivity to interference, it is undeniable that recent technological advances have made things more difficult for the Distracted Mind” (Gazzaley & Rosen, p. 4). The authors, Dr. Gazzaley, a Professor in Neurology, Physiology and Psychiatry at the University of California, San Francisco and the Founding Director of the Neuroscience Imaging Center, Neuroscape Lab and the Gazzaley Lab, and Dr. Larry Rosen, Professor Emeritus of Psychology at California State University, Dominguez Hills and a blogger at Psychology Today, recognize that technological innovations enhance our daily lives in countless ways, but nonetheless warn us that they also “threaten to overwhelm our brain’s goal-directed functioning with interference.” (p.4). Moreover, this interference is detrimental to our cognition and everyday behavior. It is so pervasive that it impacts thinking, perception, decision-making, communication, emotional regulation and memory with negative consequences for our safety, education and ability to engage socially and in work environments. Finally, most important for us as parents and educators: “The magnitude of the impact is even grater for those who have underdeveloped or impaired brains, such as children, older adults and individuals suffering from neurological and psychiatric conditions” (p.5).

The book hopes to help us manage interference in our daily lives through heightened awareness and understanding of our brains’ capabilities and shortcomings. Over the next couple of weeks, I will share this awareness and understanding with you.

For now, let’s start with the basic concepts: Our brain developed to help us forage for food and mates; when we no longer needed to spend all of our energy on these activities, our brains were perfectly adapted to foraging for information. Over time, our brains evolved complex systems for goal setting and for accomplishing them through cognitive control, attention, working memory and goal management systems. Unfortunately for us, however, our cognitive control abilities “have not evolved to the same degree as the executive functions required for goal setting” (p. 9). As we all know, it is a lot easier to set a goal than to actually follow through with it . This may be becoming increasingly more difficult in the current era of distraction.

If we could hold more information in mind and with higher fidelity, if we could cast a broader attentional net on the world around us and with greater sustainability, if we could simultaneously engage in multiple demanding tasks and transition more efficiently between them, we would not be so easily distracted and interrupted. In many ways, we are ancient minds in a high-tech world (p. 9)(emphasis in original).

The take away for now is that we need to make our environments as distraction free as possible when we need to accomplish goal directed work. That is, when it is time to read, engage in problem solving or do homework, a quiet, distraction free environment is the best idea. I know that you are thinking – good luck with that. My teenager either studies in the middle of the house where the T.V. is on, or he/she has earbuds in, listening to music. When he/she is supposed to be working he/she is looking at Youtube videos, texting, on Facebook and surfing the net all at the same time AND INSISTS that he/she is uniquely capable of multitasking because he/she has grown up doing so. In reality, your child’s brain is just as ancient as yours and can task switch but not multitask. Moreover, every switch requires recovery time to get back into goal-oriented focus. Finally, of the other activities are interference which by their nature hamper goal completion. No wonder we all battle for our children/students’ attention.

As for me, I am already rethinking the classroom. Cleared desks, computers out of sight unless being used, definitely no cell phones (already a policy), less information on Smartboards, more mindfulness and less noise.

To be sure, none of these changes can prevent the internal distractions (mind wandering) and internal interruptions (multitasking) but I have to start somewhere. Less distraction and interference, more learning, we hope. That is all for now. Have a great week.