If you’re like me, you have a love-hate relationship with your digital devices. On the one hand, they give us access to unlimited amounts of information, connect us with friends and family, and allow us to work from pretty much anywhere. On the other hand, they can captivate our attention so much that we feel distracted and angsty. And try as we might, we often find it hard to ignore the itch to stop scrolling through Instagram and really listen to what a loved one is saying. Why do these devices feel so dang addictive?
My guest today is a neuroscientist who’s studied that question in depth. His name is Adam Gazzaley and he’s the author of The Distracted Mind, as well as the founder of Gazzaley Labs at the University of California at San Francisco. There, he and his team have researched what goes on in our brains when we use our digital devices, why they distract us, and what we can do about it.
Today on the show, Adam and I discuss the science of distraction and focus. Adam walks us through the cognitive functions we use to focus our attention and to avoid distraction. He then explains why these evolved cognitive functions are mismatched to today’s constantly buzzing digital devices, using a theory of optimal food foraging borrowed from biology. We then discuss action steps grounded in science on how you can beat distraction and stay more focused throughout the day. We end our conversation talking about Adam’s work creating prescription video games (yes, prescription) that can be used to help elderly patients and individuals with ADHD.
- What research on aging can teach us about memory and distractability
- The science of distraction — why and how it happens
- What is “goal interference”?
- The 3 most important skills in successfully achieving your goals
- What hinders our ability to pay attention?
- Top-down vs. bottom-up attention
- The ways in which technology can actually help our attention, especially as we age
- Applying the “optimal foraging theory” to the idea of distraction
- Are tech companies intentionally making their software addicting?
- Advice for people who feel addicted to their smartphones/tech
- Why you should decrease your accessibility
- How to manage your boredom and anxiety
- How video games can help you recapture your ability to focus (as well as those with ADHD)
Resources/People/Articles Mentioned in Podcast
- How to Improve Your Working Memory
- How to Memorize Anything
- Podcast: Becoming an Individual in an Age of Distraction
- Podcast: The Value of Deep Work
- Podcast: Solitude and Leadership
- Our 3-part series on Attention
- 12 Concentration Exercises from 1918
- Decluttering Your Digital Life
- How to Quit Mindlessly Surfing the Internet and Actually Get Stuff Done
- The Complete Guide to Quitting Your Smartphone Habit
- 4 Questions to Crush FOMO
- Podcast: The Joy of Missing Out
- Work When You Work; Play When You Play
- Podcast: The Science of Behavior Change
- Podcast: ADHD Myths and Realities
In The Distracted Mind, Adam does a great job breaking down what goes on in our brain when we’re distracted, but more importantly provides researched-backed insights on what you can do to be less distracted.
Connect With Adam
Listen to the Podcast! (And don’t forget to leave us a review!)
Art of Charm Podcast. One of the few podcasts I listen to when not recording my own. Their recent interview with a Russian spy is not to be missed. Check out all they have to offer at www.artofcharm.com.
Mack Weldon. Their underwear and undershirts are second to none. If you don’t like your first pair, you can keep it, and they will still refund you. No questions asked. Go to MackWeldon.com and get 20% off your purchase using the promo code MANLINESS.
Read the Transcript
Brett McKay: Welcome to another edition of The Art of Manliness Podcast. Well, if you’re like me, you have a love-hate relationship with your digital devices. On the one hand, they give us access to unlimited amounts of information, connect us with friends and family, and allow us to work from pretty much anywhere. On the other hand, they can captivate our attention so much that we feel distracted and angsty. Try as we might, we often find it hard to ignore the itch to stop scrolling through Instagram and really listen to what our loved one is saying. Why do these devices feel so dang … sometimes even addictive?
My guest today is a neuroscientist who studied that question in depth. His name is Adam Gazzaley. He’s the founder of the Gazzaley Labs at University of California at San Francisco. There, he and his team has researched what goes on in our brains when we use our digital devices, why they distract us, and what we can do about it.
Today on the show, Adam and I discuss the science of distraction and focus. He walks us through, first, the cognitive functions that we use to focus our attention and to avoid distraction. He then explains why these evolved cognitive functions are mismatched for today’s constantly buzzing digital devices, and he does this by using a theory of optimal food foraging borrowed from biology. It’s really interesting. We then discuss action steps grounded in science on how you can beat distraction and stay more focused throughout the day. We end our conversation talking about Adam’s work creating prescription video games … yes, prescription … that can be used to help elderly patients and individuals with ADHD. Really fascinating show. After the show’s over, check out the show notes at aom.is/distracted.
Adam Gazzaley, welcome to the show.
Adam Gazzaley: Thank you. Glad to be here.
Brett McKay: You wrote a book; it’s called The Distracted Mind. I think it’s something that more and more people today are just becoming frustrated with themselves because they’re constantly checking their phones, they feel like they’re not present with their kids, they feel like they’re not getting as much done at work because they’re checking all those pings and whatever. How did you get into researching … You’re a neuroscientist. How did you get into researching how our brain reacts to all this technology and why it distracts us.
Adam Gazzaley: Sure. Well, I actually came in through an unusual route. I’ve been studying the aging brain for almost 25 years now, and my research over the last decade … I guess starting around a decade ago … became focused on understanding how we change in terms of our thinking as we age, especially our attention, our ability to remember things, and our perception of the world around us. What I found in my research was that older adults who are experiencing these senior moments, which are essentially memory lapses, were doing so because they were more distractible.
In experiments that we performed in an fMRI environment, so in an MRI scanner recording functional brain activity, what we showed was that they were focusing as well as a 20-year-old on relevant information that we were presenting them, but the irrelevant information … which they knew was irrelevant, so we consider that a distraction … they were overprocessing it; they were not filtering it. The degree by which they took in that irrelevant information was associated with a decline in their memory for the information they were trying to remember. Essentially, they were having a filtering problem, and they were having a distracted mind.
What happened after that was that I quickly expanded our work to look at people of all ages and found that we’re all distractible in many ways. I would say that this research, which was basic science of attention, was colliding with phenomena in the tech world. I moved from the East Coast, where I did all of my medical training and scientific training in neuroscience, to Berkeley and San Francisco, so I’m sitting right here in the tech hub of the world and see the influence of technology and feel it in myself. Those two worlds collided, my research on attention and distraction, which eventually evolved into multitasking itself, and just my observations about technology and its impact on us.
Brett McKay: Okay, this is really interesting. We’ll get into that idea how, as we get older, we have a harder time filtering. Just kind of counterintuitive. You think that, by the time you’re 50 or 60, you wouldn’t have a racing mind and you’d have a little bit more focus, but we’ll talk about why that is here in a bit. Let’s talk about the science of distraction. What goes on in our brain when we get distracted? You argue that distraction, at its core, is goal interference. How would you describe goal interference to a layman?
Adam Gazzaley: Well, first, there’s the concept of interference, which occurs all the time. It’s essentially noise that degrades the signal that we’re trying to detect. You hear it in the old days when you had radio stations that you would tune in and you would move until you hit the signal, and then you’d slide out and there would be more noise. That noise exists in everything in nature and physics. We also have this noise, this interference, when we come up with a goal. We formulate a goal, we set that … and that involves a whole set of abilities … and then we have to enact that goal. Anything that impedes that ability, we consider goal interference.
Distractions are one type of interference. Another type, we actually define differently, which would be multitasking. Just to break that down a bit, distraction, in our laboratory, in our work, is irrelevant information that you know is irrelevant and that you are actively trying to ignore. The classic example is you’re having a conversation at a restaurant, it’s loud, you’re really trying to focus on your friend’s voice and hear what they’re saying, and you’re trying to suppress all that chatter around you. That is interference in your goal of focusing.
The other type of interference, multitasking, is when you make the decision to engage in more than one task or goal at a time. Now you’re at the restaurant, you’re listening to your friend, but you’re also trying to hear the waiter recount the specials that evening at the next table since you missed it the first time at your table. Now you have two goals, and that’s another form of interference, actually more disruptive form of interference. Both of them degrade your ability to accomplish your goal.
Brett McKay: You also talk about internal interference as well.
Adam Gazzaley: Right. I just gave two examples of external interference, the noise in the restaurant, which you could decide to attend to or decide to ignore, but all of this distraction or multitasking can occur without any stimuli from the outside world. It can occur within your own mind. Likewise, as I just described for external, for internal, a distraction would be something that arises to your mind. Your goal is to ignore it. Let’s say you just had a fight with your significant other earlier that morning. Now you’re in a big meeting with your boss. You know you have to be giving your complete attention here, but your mind involuntarily returns, is not filtering out that earlier event. Multitasking internally is when you’re having that conversation with your boss, but you’re also thinking about what you’re going to have for dinner that night. You make that as a choice. It’s really about the decision about how you interact with information in your environment or internal information.
Brett McKay: One of the big arguments of your book is that … I think the book is called Ancient Brains in Modern World or something like that … but that there’s this disconnect. We have this ability to set goals, which is … it’s highly evolved, right? Not a lot of other animals can do that. We have these what you call cognitive control abilities that aren’t as evolved and causes us to be distracted from that goal we set from ourselves. Let’s talk about what are these cognitive control abilities, and then later on, why aren’t they as evolved as our goal-setting abilities?
Adam Gazzaley: Yeah. Let me break that down a bit. I think that’s sort of, in my mind, one of the main theses of the book that sometimes gets missed, so I’m glad that we’re going to dissect it. Just your first point before I dive into cognitive control, about goal-setting abilities. In my mind, that is the pinnacle of the human brain. The peak of our evolution of our abilities is goal setting. It’s not that other animals are devoid of any goal setting, but the type of goal setting that we have, these long time-delayed goals … You could set a goal for 10 years in the future, and your goals could be interwoven with other goals and interwoven with other people’s goals. That is unique. That is a human ability that really, I would say, allowed us to create all the things that sort of define us. Our civilization, our culture, our language, technology, art was really due to this ability to set goals of that level.
As you describe, setting goals is one half of the puzzle, right? You also have to be able to enact your goals. There’s a set of abilities that I categorize in three separate groups, although they are overlapping, and I’ll explain that more. That’s actually a key point. We call them cognitive control, how you control your interactions with the environment based on your goals. How do you enact them? They would be three different categories: attention, working memory, and what we define as goal management. These are the skills that allow you to carry out those high-level goals to varying degrees of success.
Brett McKay: Gotcha. It’s attention, working memory, goal management. Okay. Well, let’s talk about attention. I think people think they know what attention is, and I think usually the way they define it is I’m focused on just this one thing; I’m paying attention to this one thing. But as you mentioned earlier, an important part of attention is ignoring things that you don’t want to pay attention. That actually requires work. What goes on in our brain when we’re trying to pay attention while simultaneously trying to ignore not-pertinent information?
Adam Gazzaley: Yeah. Attention is complicated, being a cognitive neuroscientist, as a term, because it is used so commonly. Famous quotes from psychologists have described it. Everyone, essentially, feels like they know what attention is because it’s part of our vernacular and it’s so critical to everything we do, but it’s actually an immensely complex concept, and very complex from a neuromechanism point of view as well. I would define it as our ability to direct our limited mental resources where we want them in space and in time.
This also involves, as we just discussed and you alluded to, not just focus, but another active process, which is suppression and the ignoring of irrelevant information. Since we have limited resources, we must direct them where we want them. Sometimes they’re directed by the environment. That’s another discussion. We call that bottom-up attention, when the environment demands its focus from you because something is very salient or novel. What we’re talking about now is goal-directed attention.
When you look at brain networks, and we’ve done this for many years with functional imaging, both EEG and MRI, you see that there are really two different networks involved in this process of focus and ignoring, and that they’re both critical for performance. It’s not accurate to think that focusing is what we do and ignoring comes for free. It’s not passive. It actually requires resources and a different network that we see in the brain. When you fail to ignore, you suffer the consequences, which is interference. That’s a little bit about attention. We also know that it’s not just the direction of your focus and the ignoring of the irrelevant, but also this ability to sustain it over time, which is I think a real issue currently. That’s just a little bit of the complexities of that concept of attention.
Brett McKay: What hinders our ability to pay attention? I mean, you mentioned earlier that as we get older we have a harder time ignoring things. What’s going on there? What’s degrading or what changes in our brain or what-
Adam Gazzaley: Yeah. One of the things, I just mentioned that there are two main … There’s many ways of classifying attention. One way of splitting it in half is to say top-down and bottom-up attention. Top-down attention is what we were just talking about, goal-directed attention. You’re putting your focus where you want it based on your goals. The other type of attention is bottom-up attention. It’s when the environment demands it. This was critical for our survival. It’s actually how attention developed in the first place. It’s the more evolutionary ancient form of attention.
Seeking out food, avoiding predators, seeking out mates, these were the things that allowed us to survive, and the environment drove these interactions largely reflexively. Something dangerous presents itself; you pay attention to it if you’re an animal, and even a human. We still retain these bottom-up abilities. Then you instinctively flee, and that leads to your survival, and you pass along those abilities. Bottom-up attention is still a part of our lives, and we would need it to survive. If you’re crossing a street and you’re lost in top-down attention, even internally, thinking about your day, you have to be responsive to a car horn letting you know that you’re about to be crushed, so we retain bottom-up attention.
One of the areas where technology has challenged us, in my mind, is the amount of bottom-up information that’s very salient. There are beeps, there are flashes, there are buzzes across all of our sensory stimulation, and they are there as notifications to push and to pull our attention. I think that this is shifting the balance between top-down and bottom-up, how we’re being notified by our devices when they have an information packet for us. That’s one way that I think attention is shifting right now.
Now, in the aging literature and what’s happening with the older brain, it may not be because of that. Actually, we have evidence that it’s not only at least caused by changes in technology, but just changes in the brain as it ages because we see a lot of the … at least, we’re starting to find that the things that we have shown in the laboratory in the older human brain, we see in older monkey brains as well. As far as I know, they’re not on social media a lot more and texting more, so I think that it’s really also just about the aging process. What occurs is that the neural network that’s engaged when irrelevant information is presented is not as robustly activated. That stimuli around you that should be suppressed below what we consider just a flat baseline is getting through and it’s being overprocessed, and then it degrades the quality of the information that’s relevant or your goals that are relevant.
Brett McKay: That’s kind of depressing. Well, maybe we can talk about, besides researching how technology makes us more distracted, you research on how technology can help us focus more. Maybe we can talk about there some of the things we can do to counteract our aging brain and its ability to pay attention.
Adam Gazzaley: Yeah, that was a great pivot. That was basically my life pivot, I would say. What happened in my career is that what I just told you, where you said that’s kind of depressing, I was out in the world giving lectures in the mid-2000s, maybe I’d say 2005, 2006, and especially speaking to the public, older adults, about the distracted mind and the change in attention and filtering, and also the degradation that older adults experience, even more so when they multitask. I started realizing that that conversation, while interesting for an academic audience who was very curious about how we solve that problem with fMRI and all of the details of neural networks, to an audience of people that are actually experiencing that issue, it’s a completely unsatisfying talk, and depressing.
I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life sort of reporting the bad news, so just like you pivoted into how we could positively use technology, that’s exactly the stimulus that led me to ask my laboratory at UCSF, and myself, can we use technology to accomplish the reverse? Instead of having it degrade our attention and our cognitive control abilities, can we think about developing it in such a way that we can enhance those abilities? In 2008, I was really trying to figure out where we were going to go with that concept that I just described to you, and I had the idea that we had two pathways.
One is the traditional approach that neurologists like myself tend to go for immediately, which is pharmaceutical, so small molecules. We use drugs to do this all the time, or to try to do it. We do it for ADHD. We do it for Alzheimer’s disease. There are pharmaceuticals out there that have some impact on attention abilities and cognition. We actually tried a study with one of them … It’s called Aricept. It’s used to treat Alzheimer’s disease … in older adults, healthy older adults, to see if we could help them suppress better.
We had some modest effects and got a paper out of it, but it wasn’t really what I was looking for, so I struck upon this idea of, instead of using molecules, to use an experience. We know that experience drives our brain’s plasticity. It’s the very basis of all learning. It’s a non-contentious point amongst neuroscientists. It’s why education exists in the format that we employ it right now. It’s why therapy exists. The problems with those other forms of experiential interventions or treatments, like education and therapy, is that they’re not always reproducibly delivered. You have better therapists or teachers, and worse, so you can’t have the same dosage all the time with the same potency, like you would with a drug.
The idea was to use technology to deliver an experience in a way that’s reproducible and targeted and consistent in that manner. The way I came up with doing that was through the creation of a video game. In 2008, I reached out to friends of mine that worked at LucasArts, a particular friend, Matt Omernick, who is running a massive game team building the Star Wars game Force Unleashed, and I asked if they would help us build a game that I design, that they help then develop, called NeuroRacer.
NeuroRacer is a multitasking game. On the goal management part of that triad, the idea was to challenge healthy older adults in a closed-loop system such that they are constantly being tasked to multitask at a higher and higher level. The goal was not to make them better at texting and driving, but rather to see if we can engender an improvement in the other cognitive control abilities of attention and working memory, which we know are mechanistically related to multitasking, so they use common brain networks with the prefrontal cortex. To make a long story short, three years later, after multiple research experiments, we found that that hypothesis was well founded. Essentially, the older adults, which were 60- to 80-year-olds in our study, improved their ability to sustain their attention and their working memory, even in the setting of the distraction and multitasking, although none of those things were directly part of the training game itself.
That was the beginning of a long pathway for us. My lab became a center called Neuroscape. I started a company called Akili, which is now taking that game to the next level and bringing it into FDA trials to see if it can be approved as a medical device to treat many different conditions. The flip side of the whole story that we started today was that, yes, we have a distracted mind; yes, technology has created a challenge for us. It hasn’t made this conflict between goal setting and goal enactment. That’s always existed, but it’s certainly aggravated it. But if we are well informed by neuroscience and by the burden of technology, then we can design new technology or even leverage existing ones to help improve our attention and help alleviate the distracted mind, at least to some degree.
Brett McKay: That gives me hope that I can have more focus when I’m in my 60s and 70s. Let’s go back to people who are my age; they’re in their 20s or 30s. You mentioned our digital technology exacerbates this distracted mind. I thought it was interesting, this theory of why that is. You borrowed it from the world of biology, which is the optimal foraging theory, which you use to explain why digital tech, in particular, makes us so distracted. For those who aren’t familiar with optimal foraging theory, can you explain what it is and how you apply that to distraction?
Adam Gazzaley: Sure. What we’ve been talking about is why we are so sensitive to interference, which would happen if technology was there or not. I think it’s obvious, but technology, because of the access to information that it has offered us, challenges us. People can, just in their own experience, relate to that concept. The question is, even if you are aware of it, many people still feel the burden. It’s not like, “Oh, that’s there. I’m going to just stop doing that.”
One of the more interesting questions to me was why do we engage in this voracious consumption of information around us, sometimes to the disregard of our safety, if it’s occurring while we’re driving, or our relationships, if it’s occurring while you’re having dinner with your significant other, or at work or at school. You have all these real-world implications, and yet it goes on at such an intense level. Why is that? That’s what I was really searching for. There’s a lot of what I think are largely hand-waving explanations of it’s high reward, which it is. The act of switching to novel information does carry a greater reward load than sustaining, but it felt like there’s something more powerful and fundamental there.
I was interested in an evolutionary explanation, and I came across a lot of literature on what’s known as optimal foraging theory. This is essentially a mathematical approach used by behavioral ecologists and evolutionary biologists to understand how animals, and why, and make predictions about their behavior, forage for food in the world. What I started to discover is that the primate brain, the human brain in particular, has sort of co-opted some of the ancient reward systems that other animals forage for food to drive us to forage for information, so that we’re essentially information-seeking creatures in much the way that other animals seek food for survival. If that’s true, then optimal foraging theory, which are these models that allow us to predict how animals and why they forage in a particular way, might apply to us humans foraging for information using technology.
One particular optimal foraging theory, the marginal value theorem, was particularly interesting to me because what it described … There’s many different types of optimal foraging theory, some related to predator-prey relationships, but this one related to patchy environments was interesting because what a patchy environment is is where there’s a concentration of resources in one location and then sparse or impoverished areas of resources in between them. A very obvious example is a squirrel in a tree foraging for nuts. There’s a certain amount of nuts in that tree, and then at some point the animal becomes aware that there are no nuts would be the extreme, or that there are less nuts, so there’s a diminishing reward of remaining there. Then there is a new tree. Now, if that new tree is very close, then the animal might make that decision to jump over to the new tree quicker than if it’s further away. There’s this really interesting cost-benefit ratio and relationship of remaining in your source versus going to a new source.
I thought that was really analogous to how we interact with technology because it also exists; information exists in patches. That patch might be your iPhone. That patch might be a website that you’re working on or even a document. The idea is that if you are foraging for information in a patch, you also have those two forces, the benefits of remaining there, but those often diminishing, such as a text exchange where at the end it’s just a bunch of emojis and it’s lost all content, and then there is the cost of switching to a new information patch.
Where technology has stressed this is those other information patches are just so accessible now, right? At one point in history not so long ago, you’re reading a book. If you see something of interest, you have to go find a new book and look it up. That’s a great cost to get there, so you might just remain in that source, but now it’s just the click of a link and you can find out about it. The ability to switch is so easy that it drives this type of behavior. That’s a short explanation … It’s multiple chapters in the book … but I find it a satisfying one to look at why we consume information in the way we do, even if we’re aware of its negative consequences.
Brett McKay: That’s really interesting. I’m curious, you’re in San Francisco. You’re in the Bay Area, Silicon Valley. You’re using technology to help people improve their cognitive abilities. Are technology companies and app developers … are they aware of how the brain works and taking advantage of it so that we actually use their stuff more?
Adam Gazzaley: Well, I don’t know that for sure. I mean, there are strong statements about that, and retorts that that’s not the case. I don’t have inside knowledge of that. My intuition would be that it’s not driven by a deep understanding of the brain, but it’s smart people making business decisions to drive eyeballs on their products. That’s the way it’s always worked and we’re getting better at it, and technology has a lot of innate aspects of how it can be delivered that really lends itself to challenging the distracted mind, and largely because it’s about information. Information is really core to how we interact with the world. As I just described, we’re driven to it in a very sort of natural way, in an ancient way.
I would suspect that those decisions are not made based on this, but I do think that a growing awareness … and that is what I see in my interactions with many tech leaders in San Francisco … a growing awareness of this as an issue is donning now. What I hope is that this is a pivot point in the evolution of our technology where we recognize strengths and weaknesses of our brain and the opportunity and challenges of technology, and we design, in a way that is trying to help, at the most, enhance what makes us human, at the least, not degrade it, not to track from it. I think that should be a part of every development plan. Of course, profit is the bottom line. I understand that. I started a business myself. It doesn’t mean that we should not at least have the conversation about the possible negative consequences of technology we create.
Brett McKay: Going back to this idea of the optimal foraging theory, you talk about this, and I’ve read this in other places. One of the things that makes digital technology particularly “addictive” is that it’s random, right? You can check sometimes and it’s nothing, but sometimes you check and it’s like, “Oh, I got this cool email.” How does that fit into the optimal foraging theory?
Adam Gazzaley: Well, I think that in a fundamental way it is what drives the reward cycle in the first place. It’s not the details that I was describing of why do you remain versus why you leave, in my mind, but it is like the underlying engine. It is that reward system constructed to drive our ancient ancestors to stay alive. To be able to explore your environment versus exploiting where you are is this really very fine balance that is fascinating from many different aspects of behavior and neuroscience, and then when it comes to humans in real world and economics, and it impacts pretty much every field. We know that novelty and that randomness is our sources of reward. I would say that that sits underneath what we’re talking about here, which is this understanding of why we stay or switch. Those are the things that drive that process, which could be staying or leaving, from a very fundamental level.
Brett McKay: Do you have any advice, based on your research, for people who … They feel like they’re not in control of their technology, right? They’ve become the tools of their tools. Was it Emerson or Thoreau said that? I don’t remember.
Adam Gazzaley: Yeah. I would say that that’s sort of the basic point of the whole book in the end. I simply say take control. It’s not about abandoning technology. It’s not about it being good or bad, or multitasking being good or bad. It’s just about making informed decisions based on an understanding of your brain, and understanding of technology, and understanding of behavior that allows you to make better informed decisions so that you can take control over how you use tech and live healthier. That’s how I, at least, personally try to engage in the world. I wouldn’t claim to be a self-help guru; I’m a neuroscientist, but I want to live a good life myself. That’s how I think about it, is having control over how you use tech.
I think, in order to give advice, it’s helpful to talk about two other factors that influence the marginal value theorem, that optimal foraging model that we talked about. I described the cost of going to a new source is impacted by the new source of the new patch of information being so accessible right there all the time. I think we feel that when we’re driving in a car and it’s boring, and all of a sudden we reach for our phone because it’s just right in your pocket. The other source, which I just alluded to, is on the diminishing value of remaining in a source. I would say that this is probably unique to humans in some way, although I think that’s still a research question.
There are two very critical factors that make that value of remaining in a single source diminish more rapidly than it would otherwise. One of them is boredom. Evidence would suggest that we have an increased rate of boredom when we remain in a source, and probably a decreased tolerance to the sensation of boredom at all. The other factor is anxiety of remaining in a source. That anxiety could be FOMO, fear of missing out, which is very prevalent and a source of great anxiety, especially to young people. Then there’s also performance anxiety, that by not doing something else, you’re letting an opportunity go by.
Boredom and anxiety accumulate quite rapidly when we’re sustaining our attention, and that makes the value of remaining in a source diminish that much more rapidly than it would otherwise. Given that your value of remaining in the source is decreasing because you’re uncomfortable, because you’re bored or you’re anxious, and the fact that another source is so close, bam, switch, switch, switch, switch. We know that almost everyone reports multitasking during the day. It can be a third of the day. In young people, it can be seven devices at a time. I would say it’s these forces, the boredom and the anxiety, decreasing the value of remaining in a source, and the accessibility to new sources of information.
If I’m giving advice, I like to work off of a model, not just to throw out good or bad ideas. If you take that model, and that’s understandable and it’s validated, and it certainly needs work being further validated, but if so, then you know the levers that you can push on. The first would be on the accessibility side. Decrease accessibility. When you’re working on something that’s really critical, that demands high quality, that has your name associated with it … Not necessarily everything, but certainly those things, decrease accessibility. Quit your email program. Close your door. Use only one tab. Lots of ways of limiting that very easy access to other information.
On the other side, it’s learning how to manage boredom and anxiety, of doing one thing at a time. The way I look at it is that that’s not something you could just develop in one instant because you made a decision. It actually takes training and practice. If you are going to sit down to do one thing, like write a paper that’s really important, an article, I would say put an hour aside to do that and nothing else, but then take breaks. Don’t try to do the entire hour. Most people will not be able to do that, in my experience of interacting with many who I’ve given this advice to. Rather, do it in five-minute intervals and take a break after five minutes. This will help with the boredom and anxiety.
The key thing is not to take a tech break, not to go on social media or to open your email program, because that just creates these sort of iterative loops and these sinkholes that pull you further away from accomplishing that goal of doing one thing in an hour. Rather, do some light exercise. Close your eyes. Do some mindfulness meditation. Expose yourself to nature if that’s possible. Set that for a short period of time and then get right back into it. Over time, you’ll find that you can work for longer periods before having to take these types of breaks. That’s some of the advice, or at least advice that I’ve given myself.
Brett McKay: That’s awesome. You know what’s helped me, too, is coming to the realization that those other information patches that are out there, they’re boring too.
Adam Gazzaley: Totally.
Brett McKay: I used to be big on Twitter, but then I realized I’m going to see the exact same thing every time I get on there. It’s not going to really change.
Adam Gazzaley: Yeah.
Brett McKay: I have no desire to make the switch because I know that the information isn’t all that useful or interesting.
Adam Gazzaley: Yeah. That’s the last piece that I didn’t talk about, but I’m glad you alluded to. We call it metacognition, and it’s really this awareness, awareness of your limitations in your ability to focus your attention, your working memory, the cost that comes with switching, the degraded performance that you’re almost undoubtedly going to be achieving if you switch and come back, and then, of course, the awareness of what technology has to offer, and that what’s waiting over there is not so much better over here. Awareness is critical, I think, to make a change, because it’s motivating, but it’s not enough in itself. We know that for smoking cessation and dealing with sun exposure and even diet. You need to have a plan and a strategy to then enact it, but I do think it’s an important part, is that awareness.
Brett McKay: Well, I’m curious, you’ve done this research, the video games, with NeuroRacer, to help older individuals. Have you done this for 20- or 30-somethings?
Adam Gazzaley: We’re doing that right now. One of our goals are to expand beyond aging and to move the tools that we create … We have multiple games. At Neuroscape, we have six games. Some are meditation based. We have a game called MediTrain. We have a rhythm-based game called Rhythmicity; a physical fitness meets cognitive fitness motion capture game called Body Brain Trainer, a game that’s actually targeting towards teenagers to help with patience and sustained attention. Some of them are mobile games. Some use virtual reality. Some are motion capture.
We’re interested in these being clinical tools, as we described, but also wellness for healthy adults, and education tools for young people. One of my big sort of complaints about our education system is that so much is focused on the transferring of information content, but not building the underlying information processing systems that a young developing brain needs and requires to perform at a high level. We are now looking across multiple populations talking about the younger distracted mind.
Akili has a game called EVO, which was what developed sort of the next generation of NeuroRacer, the game that we tested on older adults. That game is now in a phase III FDA trial to seek approval as a therapeutic device to help pediatric ADHD. Essentially, the distracted mind in its ultimate form, young people and children and young adults that are unable to really maintain sustained attention, which has led many of them to be placed on drugs like Adderall, can we use this game which challenges multitasking to help improve sustained attention and working memory, which we showed in older adults? If we could show that, then it will hopefully become the first non-drug treatment for ADHD and the first prescribable video game. Hopefully. Stay tuned in 2018.
Brett McKay: That’s great. You would need a prescription to actually get this video game.
Adam Gazzaley: That particular one. We have many games, as I said, at Neuroscape, but what Akili has decided to do is to tackle this massive multibillion-dollar incumbent of the pharmaceutical industry, where there’s really one treatment right now for lots of conditions, ADHD being the one that we’re focusing on most acutely. The idea is to put something into the system that is really a direct challenge, that can be prescribed by a physician with confidence, that can be reimbursed by insurance, treated as what we describe as a digital medicine as opposed to a molecular medicine. Yes, that is the first pathway of that particular game.
Brett McKay: Interesting. Well, Adam, this has been a great conversation. Where can people go to learn more about your work?
Adam Gazzaley: I talked about two entities in this conversation. One, the research center at UCSF that I founded and direct, but we have many amazing faculty members here and a big team. We have our own technology development program. That’s called Neuroscape, neuroscape.ucsf.edu. We just recently built a brand-new website. There’s a mailing list. There’s just a ton of content on there that we’re constantly updating. Then there’s, of course, the company that spun out of our work, called Akili. Akiliinteractive.com will also be another source of information more on the clinical side and what’s happening with the first game that left the laboratory and we’re trying to get out into the world.
Brett McKay: Fantastic. Well, Adam, thank you so much for your time. It’s been an absolute pleasure.
Adam Gazzaley: My pleasure, as well. Thank you.
Brett McKay: My guest today was Adam Gazzaley. He’s the author of the book The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High-Tech World. It’s available on amazon.com. You can also find out more information about his work at neuroscape.uscf.edu. Also, check out our show notes at aom.is/distracted, where you can find links to resources where you can delve deeper into this topic.
Well, that wraps up another edition of The Art of Manliness Podcast. For more manly tips and advice, make sure to check out The Art of Manliness website at artofmanliness.com. If you enjoy the show, have gotten something out of it, I’d appreciate it if you take one minute to give us a review on iTunes or Stitcher. It helps us out a lot. As always, thank you for your continuing support. Until next time, this is Brett McKay telling you to stay manly.
Last updated: November 17, 2017