The Distracted Mind

The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High-Tech WorldThe Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High-Tech World by Adam Gazzaley

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The Distracted Mind (always capitalized in this study of the same name) refers to our current state of affairs due to both our neurological makeup and our current use of technology. The authors—a psychologist and a neuroscientist—address the problem of our distractions from three angles. First, they want to explain our chronic distraction neurologically (why we’re wired to be so easily distracted) and socially (how our technology is changing us and exacerbating the problem). Finally, they want to offer some practical solutions for things that we can do about it, short of a Luddite rejection of those technologies that have become a perceived necessary for professional life.

The first part of the work was the driest and most technical. Written primarily by Gazzaley, it is a detailed explanation of how and why of the human mind. Specifically, it discusses the structure of cognition and metacognition (our ability to think about how we think) as related to attention. Gazzaley provides an analysis of internal and external distractions and our proclivity to multi-task, which, as he explains, is not actually doing multiple things at once but rather rapidly switching between tasks. This portion of the study includes a bit of history about the development of our understanding of how the mind works here, including some really uncomfortable nuggets about lobotomies and how they revealed the aspects of neural structures related to keeping one’s attention on a goal and managing distractions. A primary analogy used in understanding why we’re wired toward distraction, why we’re so intent on flipping from source to source or device to device foraging for information, is a squirrel running from tree to tree looking for nuts, and a good portion of the work is Gazzaley providing an explanation for this “information foraging” nature of human thought.

The second portion of the work was more interesting to me. As a college professor, I feel like I’m on the front lines of the struggle against distractions brought about by technology. Because of research like that outlined in this book, I have a “no device policy” in my classes, and it’s amazing to see how difficult it is for college students to go for a single fifty-minute period without consulting their devices. In the second half of the work, Rosen (switching now from the neurologist to the psychologist) outlines the current state of our relationship with technology and examines how smartphones and the internet’s mobile accessibility represent a huge jump in technology and our distracted engagement with it. Quoting from a wide array of studies, Rosen gives data about average usage to show how ubiquitous this technology has become and how tied we are to it (how many minutes go between email or message checks, for instance, or studies about how stress increases when people are kept away from their phones). At the same time, Rosen outlines the social cost to all this, which includes stress, loss of life (texting while driving), detriments to feelings of well being and sleep patterns. In sum, the conclusion is that our technology drives us to distraction and contributes to feelings of anxiety and stress. No real surprises here, though they carefully document studies outlining what I’ve always offered simply as cranky-old-man anecdotes.

Rosen and Gazzaley are not simply cranky old men though. They’re much more reasonable than me, as I’ve sworn off a smartphone entirely because I fear what that amount of accessibility and distraction would do to me. [Swipes this screen while writing the review to check Facebook.] But the authors, recognizing that my amount of crankiness toward technology may not be practical for most, spend the third section of the book outlining ways to be smarter about our technology usage. If we have a good handle on our own metacognition (on our understanding about the way we think and the way we’re driven to distraction), they argue, we can take steps to use our technology more efficiently.

Being scientists though, they can’t simply offer what they think are good ideas. They have to analyze what’s actually been shown to work and give evidence for whether this will have any real impact. And being scientists they don’t want to take anything off the table, even approaches like drug therapies, brain stimulation treatments, and mental exercises that might be impractical for most readers (admitting that these are largely new and experimental and thus unconfirmed approaches). Indeed, the only real thing that holds up enough evidence for them to recommend without equivocation is physical activity, which has been shown in studies to contribute to focus and improve feelings of well-being and ability to concentrate. Other pieces of advice run the gamut to more technological fixes (recommended apps that can block or control the messages coming into your phone or the sites you’re allowed to visit during specific periods) and the blatantly obvious (such as carpooling to work to avoid the danger of texting or being on one’s phone while driving).

There aren’t any big “ah-ha” take-aways from this book, as the writers themselves admit. We all know we’re distracted. We all know our technology is probably largely behind this. What Gazzaley and Rosen want to outline though are the mechanics of this distraction in the human mind itself, the psychological details of the impact of our technology, and some (pretty straightforward and obvious, for the most part) suggestions of how we can address this. For me, working to provide a space where students are free from the tyranny of their own devices and forced to think without using their hand-held brains—at least for short periods of time—it provided solid scientific grounding for some of the arguments I already use, but it didn’t provide any real guidance for how to help my students navigate or transcend their own distractions. Because the point, as the authors touch on, is that many of us want to be distracted. It feel good, in the short term. But for those of us who recognize it as ultimately frustrating and shallow, a drain on cognitive energy, a syphoning away into a hundred small distractions what could be channeled toward those things that take deep thought and concentration to actually carry to fruition, The Distracted Mind provides an affirming call to action.

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