How can you tame your distracted mind?
It’s not easy these days, given that many of us have a smartphone—if not smartphones, plural—and the ability to be accessible, connected, and theoretically productive around-the-clock. According to Adam Gazzaley, a professor in neurology, physiology and psychiatry at the University of California-San Francisco—and the author of The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High-Tech World—the evidence is all around us: 95% of people multi-task, and on average, we do so for one-third of the day. Some young people multitask with up to seven devices at once. Having grown accustomed to constant stimulation, our tolerance for boredom is lower than ever, tested even while waiting in a short line at the local grocery store.
Gazzaley, who spoke at Fortune's Brainstorm Health conference in San Diego on Tuesday, points out our modern state is both natural (we are by nature information-seeking creatures) and sub-optimal. That is, the day’s many distractions—from working on multiple web windows to falling into the Facebook “sinkhole”—mess with our cognitive control. The resulting limitations in cognitive control—i.e., attention, working memory and goal management—in turn interfere with what Gazzaley considers the pinnacle of human brain evolution: our high-level goal setting abilities.
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Gazzaley makes clear that technology did not create this distracting “interference” in the brain, but he says it has aggravated it, and that it has impacted all sorts of brain function, from the way our memory works to the way emotion gets regulated. Those changes in turn affect how we act in the real world, whether it be at work or in relationships or considering our own personal safety.
“There are many examples of decreased performance quality and productivity, and an increase in stress,” says Gazzaley of what he has labelled "the ancient brain in a high-tech world."
Gazzaley says there are two ways for people to take back control: modifying behavior or enhancing the brain. The former involves a greater level of personal awareness—multitasking is not necessarily a bad thing; knowing when to multitask is key to winning the battle. He recommends we all take a break from multitasking—nature and exercise are good for concentrating the mind; so are attempts at “single-tasking.” (He concedes this can be hard for people, and he advises a “baby step” approach to assuming singular focus.)
In terms of enhancing the brain, both physical and cognitive exercises can help. Gazzaley, with Akili, a company he co-founded, have also been developing a video game that can help the brain better deal with distraction; it’s currently in a phase III clinical trial, and he hopes it will soon be the first non-drug treatment for ADHD, as well as the first video game prescribed for medical purposes.