Now that we’ve glanced into the brain’s workings, let’s try to understand why it’s so difficult for us to achieve self-imposed goals. Although we can’t hold buzzing smartphones or flashing TV screens entirely responsible for distracting us, it’s nonetheless clear that modern technology has put considerable strain on our cognitive control.
More precisely, modern technologies exploit our brain’s intrinsic susceptibility to interference. They impede our performance and sidetrack us from our goals. You know the feeling: even though you’re in an important meeting you just can’t help glancing at your phone. Or maybe you totally zone out at the dinner table because the game is playing on the TV next door, and you can hear the crowd reaching fever pitch.
The obvious solution might be to keep clear of cafés, TVs and the internet when you’ve got an objective you want to achieve. But it’s not that simple.
The truth is, we let ourselves be distracted because these interferences are a basic facet of what it is to be human. Our primitive primate brains were always on the lookout for food, as that’s what we needed to survive. Nowadays, this instinct remains, but it expresses itself as a search for information as well as food.
Consequently, we get the same hit of satisfaction from activities like googling, Twitter browsing, or TV watching as we did when we were primates foraging for food.
Amazingly, even when this behavior hampers performance and interferes with our goals, we let it continue. It’s actually just part of being human and, interestingly, it’s a drive that’s linked to our internal reward systems. For instance, a 2009 study of macaque monkeys showed that when primates receive information, their dopamine systems are activated just as they are when food is found. That may explain why we end up juggling smartphones, TVs and tablets. We crave that hit of dopamine.
We’ve seen that we have hardwired responses to information. But this means we have to recognize how the current high-tech world makes it all the more easy for us to get distracted.
Specifically, there are three technologies which deliberately accentuate interference and have significantly changed societal behavior. These are the internet, smartphones and social media.
First off, the internet provides us with an endless supply of ready information at all times. It’s also thanks to the internet that we have email, a form of free and instant communication.
Mobile computing has meant that the internet is now everywhere too. This is most visible in the omnipresence of smartphones. A single device that can browse the web, stream video and music, take pictures and share them can now be carried everywhere.
These three technologies make it extremely difficult to focus on one task at a time or to sustain focus over a long period.
We might like to tell ourselves that we’re “multitasking,” but in reality, we’re just jumping between different tasks without giving sufficient attention to any. This occurs in non-work environments too. The next time you’re at a café, look at all the couples and friends who can’t help playing with their smartphones instead of engaging with each other. That impulse is observable under test conditions too. A 2012 study showed that younger adults switch tasks, on average, 27 times every hour. Older adults do it a little less, but 17 times every hour is still quite high.
Why do people put themselves in constant danger because of this behavior? You would think that no phone is that important. It turns out that there are four factors at play which keep our eyes fixed on these screens: boredom, anxiety, accessibility and lack of metacognition.
Boredom decreases when people switch between tasks and information sources. That’s particularly true if you go from a work-related information stream to an “entertainment-related” one, like Facebook or YouTube.
Anxiety levels also decrease when we change information feeds. We feel anxiety if we’re unable to check our smartphones or social media. This has been termed FOMO or “fear of missing out,” and it can be observed in young adults if they go 15 minutes without looking at their smart devices. It’s this self-derived anxiety which causes us to interrupt ourselves.
Access to technology is nowadays more or less a given in most parts of the world. It’s like constantly having access to a never-ending box of chocolates – easy to overdo it. Smartphones, for example, are always connected to the internet, so email and the temptations of social media are just a finger tap away.
Finally, there’s metacognition or being aware of what your brain is up to. If you’re self-aware that you’re switching tasks, you’re less likely to become distracted. However, if you lack metacognition, then you’ll find it pretty hard to resist looking at your smartphone.
The human brain is capable of some astonishing feats. But its evolutionary history has left it susceptible to distractions and interruptions. Such interference stops us reaching our goals as quickly and efficiently as we would like. Luckily, there are ways to train your brain and improve your cognitive control.
Check out my related post: Is social media affecting your memory?