The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High‑Tech World, by Adam Gazzaley and Larry D. Rosen

Are our mental faculties really too unevolved to keep us afloat in an ocean of digital distraction? asks Shane O’Mara

December 1, 2016
Statue of Angry Birds game character being shot from catapult
Source: Marco d’Itri

Adam Gazzaley and Larry Rosen’s book is born of a peculiar and modern anxiety: that our newly connected world is doing something to us. That “something” derives from our continual use of smartphones and similar devices for browsing, texting, snapchatting, tweeting, whatever. This swimming in a sea of distraction results from our apparently having, as the subtitle argues, “ancient brains in a high-tech world”. These devices are thus making us more distractible.

The Distracted Mind begins with distraction in the modern world and then undertakes an excursus through pathological conditions (ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder), PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), TBI (traumatic brain injury), depression, dementia) and age-related changes in attention. The claims are strong: the authors observe, “We no longer stand idle in lines, immersed in thought or interacting with those next to us.” Curiously, though, experiments show that mind-wandering is aversive to the point that people will give themselves mild electric shocks to avoid it. But Gazzaley and Rosen insist that our “sensitivity to interference” is a “fundamental vulnerability of our brain”, which makes one wonder why evolution has not selected against it. Perhaps because a sensitivity to new information might have an adaptive value? But technological innovations, they argue, “threaten to overwhelm our brain’s goal directed functioning with interference”. Apparently “we are experiencing an elevation of information itself to the level of the ultimate commodity”. What does this even mean?

Contemporary models of brain functioning assume that the brain processes information, so this claim is a banality, a tautology or an attempt at profundity. It is not clear which, so perhaps it is all three. Other claims are less serious: “Angry Birds penetrated society in just over one month”, which is a little overblown for a cultural artefact that has all but disappeared, and was just as true of the Macarena and loom bands. Or the warning that we need no longer remember facts; we just google them – which will come as news to the thousands of students who sit multiple-choice quizzes every day.

Humans have always been distractible. It is not so long ago that we bought newspapers on a daily basis, magazines a little less frequently, wore Walkmans, carried notebooks to scratch out thoughts, toted books or complained volubly about queue length. We smoked, chewed gum, or risked opprobrium for reading books at the dinner table. We keep the radio on when we are driving, and we used to spend hours at night channel-hopping.

What might be mistaken for a problem might simply be behavioural substitution. Facebook is now one of the principal means for newspapers to tell their stories and compensate for collapsing dead-tree sales. Excellent writing, previously inaccessible, is now available at the touch of a button. What is the evidence that this is all bad? Use of mobile devices while driving is clearly a no-no – and results in penalties similar to those for drink-driving or drug-driving, or careless driving – ’twas ever thus. Humans take risks, look for a boost while performing boring tasks, and need to be subject to behavioural management when their behaviour puts others at risk. But we have a demonstrated capacity to adapt rapidly to new technology.

An alternative conceptualisation to worrying is that these devices are useful cognitive extensions of the brain, allowing offloading on to cognitive surfaces to extend our capabilities rather than usurp them. And maybe that’s why we use them. They enrich our cognitive lives – a hypothesis untested in this book. Perhaps reality oscillates between cognitive enrichment and cognitive distraction.

Shane O’Mara is professor of experimental brain research and Wellcome Trust senior investigator, Institute of Neuroscience, Trinity College Dublin. He is author of Why Torture Doesn’t Work: The Neuroscience of Interrogation (2015).

The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High‑Tech World
By Adam Gazzaley and Larry D. Rosen
MIT Press, 304pp, £19.95
ISBN 9780262034944 and 2336307 (e-book)
Published 28 October 2016

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