The Distracted Mind
Humans went from foraging for food to foraging for information. We inherently seek novel experiences which deliver physiological arousal and enjoyment. These short-term dopamine rewards we receive from immediately answering the incoming text, email, or social media message, are addicting and derailing of our attention, working memory, and goal management cognitive control.
At the top of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is Self-Actualization which arguably is the pinnacle of human brain evolution. Executing the ideas which lead to achieving one’s full potential requires higher level goal setting and attentional regulation. This collides head on with our limitations in cognitive control coupled with our insatiable drive for information. In addition, our desire to prevent social anxiety and solve boredom makes us susceptible to the constant bombardment of distractions and interruptions exacerbated by the explosion of the internet, smartphones, and social media.
We check our phones right when we wake up. We check our phones to the last minute before we go to sleep. We check our phones during meals with family and friends, sacrificing our ability to maintain healthy relationships. We even check our phones when we are driving, risking injury or death for ourselves and selfishly putting others at risk. We have a serious problem.
To become more productive, creative, and to have more energy, we should partition our day into project periods. William James, the father of American psychology said, “everyone knows what attention is.” We must focalize and concentrate our consciousness to take possession of our mind. Social networking should be done during a designated time, not as constant interruptions to our day. Email too should be done at designated times. An email that we know is sitting there unread messes up our attentional resources as our brain keeps thinking about it which distracts us from what we’re doing. What might be in it? Who is it from? Is it good news or bad news? It’s better to leave our email program off than to hear that constant ding and know that we’re ignoring messages. Turn off all alerts of any kind including vibrations and if we still feel a pull, then move the device to a different room. Close down all apps and tabs that we are not using to complete the task at hand and limit ourselves to a single screen.
It’s also crucial to relax our attention and activate our default mode network. Take breaks to walk among trees and birds. Take breaks to do physical exercise which enhances cognition by increasing blood flow to the brain. Take breaks to daydream. Take breaks to doodle. Take breaks to think creatively. Allow your mind to just wander. Take a nap. Talk to another human. Read a joke. Tell a joke. Laugh! JOMO (Joy Of Missing Out) is a beautiful feeling to embody. Subscribe to Digital Detox. Warn your family and friends then keep your computer and phone off for a full day. Go to a mediation retreat.
Maximize the efficiency of executing what brings you Self-Actualization.
Dr. Adam Gazzaley has helped build a company called Akili which is going through clinical trials to be able to prescribe high-quality video games as cognitive therapeutics for ADHD, autism, depression, Alzheimer’s disease, and traumatic brain injury.
I myself am working with a team that is building awareness and cognition enhancing experiences in Augmented Reality on Microsoft HoloLens.