What’s the first thing you do when you need to find the solution to a problem or find some information? Most likely, you reach for your smartphone. With a world of information constantly at the ready in your pocket, there’s hardly any information you can’t find within seconds. And do you even remember what it was like trying to keep up contact with all your friends before Facebook? In The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High-Tech World by Adam Gazzaley and Larry D. Rosen, both authors explore more about this.
There are definite pluses to living in an interconnected high-tech world. But there are downsides too. Our brains are the product of millions of years’ worth of evolution. They have developed to operate in a certain way. Unfortunately, we’re hard-wired to get distracted, and new technology is hardly helping.
The human brain is unquestionably one of the wonders of the universe. With it, we can achieve incredible feats – from solving complicated math problems to learning languages and designing cars and jets.
In short, it’s one of the most complex systems in the known universe. In fact, it’s this complexity that helps us set goals and perform an incalculable number of tasks. From gossiping with friends to presenting the next big project for colleagues at work, our brain is equipped with decision-making, planning and evaluation abilities. More formally, these are known as executive functions.
After this planning function, another faculty of the brain is necessary to actually accomplish tasks. Specifically, we need cognitive control. These are cognitive abilities like attention, goal management and working memory.
If we didn’t have cognitive control, there’d be no way to make conscious decisions that inform and have an impact upon our lives. Instead, we’d just respond unthinkingly and mechanically to the world around us.
Imagine you’re wandering the aisles of your local supermarket because you need food and drinks for friends who are coming over that night. If you were to suddenly lose all cognitive control, your ability to pay attention to and remember that goal would simply vanish. Instead of tracking down beer and snacks, you’d be walking through the aisles without aim.
Unfortunately, nowadays, our cognitive control is under more stress and strain than ever before. Consequently, we are distracted from our goals even more. This has a lot to do with complexity and the complicated nature of the brain in particular. More complex systems are more vulnerable to interference.
If we’d evolved so that we could cognitively control our minds despite constant interference, that would be great. But we haven’t. In fact, our cognitive control seems to have evolved less than our executive functions. In other words, we’re collectively great at setting goals but far worse at seeing them through. This explains why we all tend to forget tasks like calling on a friend’s birthday or turning off the lights.
We might like to imagine that we’re in full control of our behavior, but that’s far from the case. We can’t help the way environmental stimuli cause us to respond automatically. These external stimuli are called bottom-up influences. Typically, they’re characterized by saliency, which means they are immediately noticeable to us, like, for example, when you hear someone shouting your name. Additionally, these stimuli have novelty – a dramatic and unexpected quality such as a car backfiring.
There’s nothing we can do to stop our involuntary responses to bottom-up influences. And for good reason. They are the mark of the survival instinct we’ve inherited from our ancestors. Thankfully, we are more than just passive creatures, primed only to respond to sudden stimuli for immediate survival.
In general, our actions are guided by the perception-action cycle: we perceive the world in a certain way and act accordingly. We have also evolved the ability to pause in the moment and evaluate our perception of a given situation. That means we can decide upon the best response at the time. These internal decision-making mechanisms are called top-down influences.
Imagine a baby pinches your arm. You pull away quickly in pain, but you aren’t going to hit back blindly in response, as you’re aware you’re in no danger. No action is taken because of the “pause” in the cycle when you evaluate and act upon possible responses. Now that’s control. To the next part…
Check out my related post: Is social media affecting your memory?