#226 — The Price of Distraction | Adam Gazzaley on Making Sense with Sam Harris

Check out the Making Sense Podcast Page & Episode Notes

Key Takeaways

  • “We are constantly fragmenting our limited attentional focus with both external and internal distractions and multiple tasks, and there’s cost to this” Adam Gazzaley
    • We are usually not aware of the switching costs of diverting our attention away and then bringing it back
  • The abundance of available information creates a strong fear of missing out, which causes us to continuously switch to new websites, articles, etc.
    • Easily available information also severely decreased our tolerance for boredom
      • When in line at the grocery, even for a minute, we feel the need to intake more information
  • Ways to improve focus
    • Limit accessibility of distractions in your environment
    • Consciously practicing single-tasking and sustained attention
    • Take healthy “breaks” before going back to your task
    • As an attention-training practice, meditation is a great way to improve our ability to focus
  • The brain has the capacity to modify itself at every level in response to experiences
    • “You’re making yourself based on what you’re doing with your attention” Sam Harris
  • Technology is harming our attention, but it can also help us improve it
    • The idea of “Digital Medicine” – Technologies that help us improve the functions of our brains

Key Products Mentioned

Intro

  • Adam Gazzaley M.D., Ph.D. (@adamgazz) is a Professor in Neurology, Physiology, and Psychiatry at the University of California San Francisco, and the Founding Director of the Neuroscience Imaging Center, Neuroscape Lab, and the Gazzaley Lab
  • Host: Sam Harris (@SamHarrisOrg)
  • In this chat, Adam and Sam discuss ways in which technology is changing us and what we can do to protect and improve our focus

Information Overload

  • Humans are information-seeking creatures
    • Evolutionarily we thrived due to our brains’ capacity to process complex information
  • But we don’t have unlimited information-processing capacity
    • “Information is key to how we survive and thrive, but there’s a breaking point and all sorts of consequences” Adam Gazzaley
    • If the information-processing system is overloaded it breaks

Can We Multi-Task?

  • The term “multi-tasking” is confusing
  • We all feel capable of doing different tasks at the same time
    • We’re drawn to it and we feel we can get better at it
  • In reality, our brain is not able to “parallel process” two demanding tasks at once
    • Brain scans show that while multi-tasking, we continuously shift attention from one task to the other
    • If one of the tasks does not require attention, then we can do more than one thing
      • For example, driving is mostly unconscious so we can listen to a podcast in the meantime
      • If all of a sudden driving demands our full attention, our brain will stop paying attention to the podcast

Bottom-up and Top-down Attention

  • Human attention can be divided into two alternating forces
  • Bottom-up Attention
    • Activated by “external” stimuli (loud sounds, flashes of lights, your name, etc.)
      • This is an ancient part of our attention system, critical for our (and any animal’s) survival
  • Top-down Attention (Goal-directed)
    • You make a conscious decision to direct attention towards something

How our Top-down Attention Gets Disrupted

  • Today, we are incapable to sustain our attention for a long time
    • In addition to external stimuli distracting us, we also do it ourselves
  • Three different ways we get distracted
    • External bottom-up stimuli pull our attention (phone vibrating)
      • Tech companies are aware of this and use it to direct our attention to our devices
    • There are also internal bottom-up stimuli (body pain or stomach rumbles)
    • We also (consciously or subconsciously) divert our top-down attention to different things
      • Emotions such as anxiety and boredom drive us to look for new stimuli
  • “We are constantly fragmenting our limited attentional focus with both external and internal distractions and multiple tasks, and there’s cost to this” Adam Gazzaley
    • We are usually not aware of the switching costs of diverting our attention away and then bringing it back
    • Every time we switch:
      • We lose time as we have to remember where we were in our task
      • There’s an emotional cost, as we get stuck in a loop of increasing anxiety

Information Foraging and Boredom

  • Adam compares how humans look for information to the way animals forage food
  • Once a squirrel has foraged 50% of the nuts in a tree, he will decide whether to continue foraging in the tree or jump to a new one
    • If there are many trees available nearby he will be strongly tempted to continuously jump to new trees
  • In the same way, now, humans are capable to easily acquire new information all the time
    • This creates a strong fear of missing out, which causes us to continuously switch to new websites, articles, etc.
  • On one level, the overabundance of information has almost eliminated boredom
    • We have access to so much information and entertainment
    • There is no friction to consuming more content
  • However, we easily feel bored as our tolerance for boredom declines
    • As soon as we finish consuming, we immediately want new content
    • When in line at a grocery store, even for a minute, we feel the need to intake more information
  • We can practice getting familiar and becoming more tolerant of boredom
    • We all have moments throughout the day in which we are forced to stop (in line at the grocery store or at a traffic light)
      • We can observe the onset of boredom and the urge to pick up the phone

How to Live More Focused Lives?

  • Once you see the pressures that make you distracted, you have the framework to reverse that habit and become more focused
  • Limit accessibility of distractions in your environment
    • For example, close Slack or distracting browser tabs while working, to make them less accessible
  • Consciously practicing single-tasking and sustained attention
    • Start with short periods of time
    • Feel and understand the boredom and anxiety that come up
    • Take healthy “breaks” before going back to your task
      • Avoid social media
      • Do some light stretches
      • Meditate
      • Look at Nature
  • At first, it will be difficult, but with time it becomes enjoyable to practice sustained attention
  • As an attention-training practice, meditation is a great way to improve our ability to focus

Neuroplasticity, Technology and Meditation

  • The brain has the capacity to modify itself at every level in response to experiences
    • This phenomenon is known as “Neuroplasticity”, which is the key to learning
      • Neuroplasticity doesn’t stop in adulthood
  • “What you do with your brain winds up physically changing your brain” Sam Harris
    • People are often surprised when hearing claims that meditation can physically change the brain
    • In reality, everything we do changes our brain
      • For this reason, it is even more important to be careful about what we pay attention to
      • “You’re making yourself based on what you’re doing with your attention” Sam Harris
  • Technology is harming our attention, but it can also help us improve it
    • Idea of “Digital Medicine” – Technologies that help us improve the functions of our brains
  • If we challenge the brain in a targeted way and align reward systems appropriately, we can optimize neural systems
    • Meditation is a perfect, ancient example of this
    • Similar experiences can be delivered digitally
Making Sense with Sam Harris : , ,
Notes By Giorgio Parlato

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