Books

Are You Paying Attention? 'The Distracted Mind'

Multi-tasking on your smart phone consumes too many resources, including memory, and can cause the system to "choke". Imagine what it does to your brain.

In the simplest of terms, Adam Gazzaley and Larry D. Rosen's The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High-Tech World is a book about technology and the distractions that often accompany it. This may not sound like anything earth shattering. A lot of people have written about this subject. Still, this book feels a little different. It's a unique combination of research, data, and observation. Equally important, it doesn't just talk about the problem—it suggests solutions.


The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High-Tech World

Adam Gazzaley, Larry D. Rosen

(MIT Press)

October 2017

This research and attention to detail (along with some pretty good writing) make clear why The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High-Tech World won the 2017 PROSE Awards in the Biomedicine and Neuroscience category and is heralded as "brilliant and practical, just what we need in these techno-human times."

This book isn't (to use the authors' words) "pseudo science"—it's real science and its science comes from two different fields—psychology and neuroscience. The authors hope that "by providing both scientific foundations and real-world examples of people facing and addressing their own distracted minds" they will "share… a unique perspective on how our increasingly information-saturated world (overflowing with pop-up windows, smartphones, texts, chat, email, social media, and video games) has coupled with growing expectations of 24/7/365 availability and immediate responsiveness to place excessive demands on our brains." And, for the most part, they do.

The book focuses on what Gazzaley and Rosen call the three main game changers: the internet, smartphones, and social media. Since many are already familiar with these things, some of the information in the book may not be that surprising. Multitasking (or often more accurately task switching) usually hinders performance. A lot of people probably know this, but the comparisons the authors draw and the exercises they provide create a unique perspective.

First, the comparison—the authors compare the human brain to the Apple brain and include Apple's description of a recent iOS system: "Free-for-all multitasking will consume way too many resources, especially memory. This will make the system choke, given the limited memory available on these devices. The CPU will also be taxed, and it would deplete the battery life quicker while slowing down applications running in the foreground." To which Gazzaley and Rosen simply respond, "Such a description could be easily written about our brains, rather than our iPhones."

Then the exercise. It's also simple enough. Count from one to 15 or so. Recite the first half of the alphabet. Now combine. Think 1A, 2B, etc. Trust me—it's harder than it sounds, and it definitely takes longer than just counting or going through the alphabet.

Of course, this section of the book also includes a lot of research. It talks about a paper published in 1956 titled "The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two: Some Limits on Our Capacity for Processing Information", lab studies that record brain activity using EEGs and other memory tests. There are lines like "The conclusion of our fMRI study was that disruption of prefrontal cortical networks underlies limitations in selectivity that result in memory deficits". Yet the language in Distracted Mind is well suited for those without a scientific background, a welcome read for the generalist.

This is how Gazzaley and Rosen approach most subjects—research, studies, interesting comparisons, examples, and some practical advice or suggestions. Arguably, most chapters are a little heavier on the research and studies than they are practical solutions, but sometimes the research may offer something just as important as solutions: comfort. For example, it may be reassuring for someone who suffers from cell phone separation to know that they are not alone (and that cell phone separation is actually a thing). Because (as Gazzaley and Rosen report), "nine in ten adults under the age of thirty fear not having their mobile phone" (and it's not just younger adults—a Bank of America study found that 47 percent of all adults "admit they wouldn't last a day without their smartphone"). Other studies and experiments indicate that heart rate and blood pressure rise when people can't respond to incoming calls or messages.

Still, there's a nice amount of truly practical information to be found here. After covering a range of subjects, including a "deep dive" into the brain, the impact of technology on diverse populations, and goal management and interference, the book ends with a chapter on changing behaviors, which is aptly titled "Taking Control".

In this section, Gazzaley and Rosen outline various scenarios that involve things such as texting and driving or sleep and then suggest practical solutions to remove distractions from each scenario. Or in their own words, they provide "practical approaches that will serve to increase our metacognition, decrease the accessibility of technology, decrease our feelings of boredom, and minimize our anxiety of missing out."

While some of the solutions seem simple, e.g., keeping the phone in the trunk when driving, Gazzaley and Rosen admit making changes won't be easy. Still, considering the plethora of public service announcements (and laws) about texting and driving, the number of different products that allow us to disconnect from various technologies, and the range of sappy commercials about unplugging—none of which really seem to have changed anything -- perhaps this book, with its research, stories, tips, and exercises, will.

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