Taking Control of Your Distracted Mind
Remember that conversation you were having with a friend, when you heard your phone beep;
Remember that conference call with your colleagues, when you saw an email notification pop up;
Remember that time you were driving home, when you felt a familiar vibration in your pocket.
Many of us are awakening to the reality that modern humans are now faced with a critical need to manage our lives more intentionally in the increasingly complex environment that we inhabit. Let’s speak plainly here: This is the direct result of interference generated by the recent explosion in accessibility to information. Consumer technology has ushered in an age where information has been elevated to the level of ultimate commodity. And as described in The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High-Tech World*, accessibility is only the surface of this issue, as our “…technological innovations have been accompanied by a shift in societal expectations such that we now demand immediate responsiveness and continuous productivity.”
A never-ending stream of high-tech advances has offered us an incredible opportunity to communicate with each other and entertain ourselves, but it has also challenged our brains at a fundamental level. The result has been a negative impact on our lives, expressed not just as diminished productivity in work and study, but increased stress, more anxiety, and a deterioration in our relationships, sleep, and health. To truly understand this interference dilemma, and hopefully leverage this insight to use technology in a healthier way, we need to appreciate that there are two dominant and competing forces that guide how we interact with the world around us: bottom-up and top-down.
Bottom-up is a primitive source of influence on our behavior; it is ruled by salient, unexpected, dramatic, sudden, and novel events that reflexively command our attention: at its most basic, bursts of lights, sounds, and vibrations, but also hearing your name uttered quietly behind you. We have no choice but to pay attention to them, even if we are trying to direct our mental resources elsewhere. This, in turn, powerfully impacts how we perceive the world and how we act in it. The evolutionary pressures that supported the development of these bottom-up mechanisms in our primordial nervous system were enormous; sensitivity to such stimuli in our environment is what ensured the survival of our ancestors by reflexively guiding them away from danger and towards sustenance. And make no mistake, sensitivity to bottom-up influences is still very relevant to us modern humans (try navigating the streets of Manhattan), and fortunately our brains still retain these essential neural systems.
Top-down is the influence that our goals have on our behavior. It is what allows us to direct our limited cognitive resources to where, when and what we decide deserves our consideration. Top-down allows us to deliberately direct our attention to what we choose as relevant and then sustain that focus over time, even if the content may be boring. It is the filter we apply to block out information that we deem as irrelevant to accomplishing our goals. Top-down has broken the reflexive perception-action cycle that drives the behaviors of other animals; it has freed us from being slaves to our sensory world, and has thus fostered the conditions necessary for the emergence of culture, art, music, language, and technology.
All of our interactions with the world are the outcome of an ongoing competition between these forces of bottom-up and top-down. This has been true throughout the course of human evolution, but recently something has shifted the balance of power. Evidence is emerging to suggest that unprecedented access to information, notably the manner in which we simultaneously engage with multiple tech devices and information streams (multitasking), has not just created more bottom-up noise, but has actually made us more sensitive to bottom-up interference — more distractible — and thus less effective in using our top-down attention abilities when we really need to. Perhaps even more influential on shifting this balance is that our tech devices now have the ability to ping us when they have something to share. This insistent tugging on our attention by a myriad of vibrations, sounds, and visual notifications is the very hallmark of bottom-up.
While it may be evident to you that the quality of that conversation with your friend, that conference call with your colleagues, that safe drive home — indeed, all of your daily top-down activities — is now challenged by incessant bottom-up notifications from our devices, this is only half of the battle. Bottom-up influences are also created within our own minds, without a stimulus from the outside world. Thoughts, feelings, inclinations, and urges spontaneously arise as internal distractions that create interference with our top-down goals. In The Distracted Mind, we propose that those same tech device notifications and societal expectations that have conditioned us to respond more reflexively to external bottom-up distractions, have also led to more internally generated distractions.
Bottom-up sensitivity is further exacerbated by two other factors: first, constant anticipation of receiving rapid rewards in the form of new and interesting information has increased boredom when we engage in a single activity. A growing lack of tolerance to boredom is especially troublesome, given that it is in those quiet times that the sparks of creativity are ignited. Second, we suffer anxiety from fear of missing out (FOMO) on another activity when we try to focus on a single goal, which has been intensified by the presence of social media. Both boredom and anxiety make us more likely to engage with intrusive thoughts and feelings that fuel a premature toggling to a new information source. Studies have shown that students and office workers only attend to a single task for 3–5 minutes before switching to another task, with internal distractions triggering the switch just as often as external digital notifications.
This shift in the balance of power from top-down to bottom-up is pervasive throughout our lives. We increasingly find ourselves being pushed and pulled by bottom-up forces, both externally and internally generated, leading us to be less adept at sustaining top-down interactions with our world. The negative ramifications of this are broad and deep, now that tech inhabits our classrooms, workplace, restaurants, bedrooms, bathrooms, and goes on vacation with us. We can recognize that this phenomenon was even at play in our recent political campaigns — bright, loud, and dramatic — classic bottom-up influences won the competition for our attention, feeding biases and emotions that interfered with top-down focus and sustained thinking critical for engaging in “boring” policy discussions essential for important decision-making.
Technology is not our enemy. We cannot and should not abandon it (not that you would, even if I told you to). Rather, we need to make more informed decisions about how we use technology based on a richer understanding of how our brains interact with our environment. We can employ this knowledge to shift the balance from bottom-up to top-down. But rebuilding degraded top-down processes in adults and developing top-down abilities de novo in children take effort and a strategy. Some approaches we suggest in The Distracted Mind include restricting accessibility (e.g., turning off email notifications, shutting down your phone), setting expectations (e.g., Do Not Interrupt signs), and taking non-tech breaks (e.g., physical exercise, nature exposure, meditation) when engaged in activities that demand the singular attention necessary to produce high quality results and meaningful interactions. It is time to develop awareness of the factors that influence our behavior — notably the role of boredom and anxiety — and structure our lives and technology in a manner that enhances the core of what makes us human. It is time to take control.
Gazzaley, Adam; Rosen, Larry D. (2016). The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High-Tech World (MIT Press)