Learning and Living in the Digital Age: Understanding and Managing Distractions


Technology and mobile devices gave us access to information and today, when information is literally right at our fingertips, we have become hungrier, wanting more. It comes to a point where too much of it has become a distraction affectingour learning, work and even our relationships.

In his interview with NPR's Eric Westervelt, Adam Gazzaley shares insights from his book The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High Tech World. The book explores the "evolution" of the human mind from mankind's initial food-hunting days to its incessant and obsessive desire for more information.

Adam Gazzaley, M.D., PhD is a professor of neurology, physiology and psychiatry, and director of the Neuroscience Imaging Center at the University of California San Francisco wrote the book with research psychologist, Larry D. Rosen from California State University Dominguez Hills. According to Dr. Gazzaley, we have now come to a point when seeking information is critical for human survival. More so, that we engage with this behavior despite knowing its negative effects: distraction and countering productivity.

Learning and Memory

One of the main theses of their book said Prof. Gazzaley is the effects of task switching to our cognitive control. Switching in between tasks degrades our performance and impacts our cognitive abilities. This impact translates to our learning, affects our decision-making, our interaction with others and our presence of mind on physical and daily activities like driving.

Experiments done by Dr. Gazzaley and his team also revealed that memory performance is not as highly dependent to mental focus as we initially thought. Mental focus is not the key to the highest levels of our memory. It all depends on how well we filter all the distractions around us.

Filtering out irrelevant information can be done actively, often however, we do it subconsciously. Our ability to ignore the unimportant distractions allow us to focus better in the perception and understanding of information, remembering it well when needed and making sound decisions about it.

We need to relearn and focus our attention to a single goal, according to Prof. Gazzaley. There is value in sustained attention, and sadly some young people never learned to do this. Digital natives are not used to having their attention to a single goal.

The professor reiterated how multi-tasking and shifting our attention from one activity to another degrades performance. When this happens in the classroom, it can negatively affect school performance.

Tech Time Outs

These digital distractions don't just affect our cognitive abilities but also has an adverse impact on our emotional and psychological well-being. Our incessant need to know leaves us with stress and anxiety that affects our moods and behaviors.

Taking a break and disconnecting is a good way to manage the stress and anxiety. Physical activities like exercise and mindfulness practices like meditation can help improve our health and mood. Dr. Gazzaley doesn't blame technology and it's not after all, evil. We need to reframe our obsession with technology and information and make it a positive mental force instead of an addiction.

The professor also suggests taking extended periods of being technologically removed and disconnected and taking these "tech time outs" to engage in meaningful face-to-face physical interactions with family and friends.

Since children take their cue from their parents, adults should consciously exert an effort to put tech aside and spend quality time with their family. Like enjoying dinner together without pulling out their mobile phone to check on text messages or take calls.

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