We all suffer from the digital-age version of life’s “full catastrophe”: incoming emails, pressing texts, phone messages, and more, storming in all at once – not to mention the Facebook posts, Instagrams, and all such urgent memos from our personal universe of social media. Given the ubiquity of smartphones and such devices, people today seem to take in far more information than they did before the digital age.
Decades before we began to drown in a sea of distractions, cognitive scientist Herbert Simon made this prescient observation: “What information consumes is attention. A wealth of information means a poverty of attention.”
Then, too, there are the ways our social connections suffer. Did you ever have the impulse to tell a child to put down her phone and look in the eyes of the person she is talking to? The need for such advice is becoming increasingly common as digital distractions claim another kind of victim: basic human skills like empathy and social presence.
The symbolic meaning of eye contact, of putting aside what we are doing to connect, lies in the respect, care, even love it indicates. A lack of attention to those around us sends a message of indifference. Such social norms for attention to the people we are with have silently, inexorably shifted.
Yet we are largely impervious to these effects. Many denizens of the digital world, for instance, pride themselves on being able to multitask, carrying on with their essential work even as they graze among all the other incoming channels of what’s‑up. But compelling research at Stanford University has shown that this very idea is a myth – the brain does not “multitask” but rather switches rapidly from one task (my work) to others (all those funny videos, friends’ updates, urgent texts. . .).
Attention tasks don’t really go on in parallel, as “multitasking” implies; instead they demand rapid switching from one thing to the other. And following every such switch, when our attention returns to the original task, its strength has been appreciably diminished. It can take several minutes to ramp up once again to full concentration.
The harm spills over into the rest of life. For one, the inability to filter out the noise (all those distractions) from the signal (what you meant to focus on) creates a confusion about what’s important, and so a drop in our ability to retain what matters. Heavy multitaskers, the Stanford group discovered, are more easily distracted in general. And when multitaskers do try to focus on that one thing they have to get done, their brains activate many more areas than just those relevant to the task at hand – a neural indicator of distraction.
Even the ability to multitask efficiently suffers. As the late Clifford Nass, one of the researchers, put it, multitaskers are “suckers for irrelevancy,” which hampers not just concentration but also analytic understanding and empathy.
Cognitive control, on the other hand, lets us focus on a specific goal or task and keep it in mind while resisting distractions, the very abilities multitasking harms. Such steely focus is essential in jobs like air traffic control – where screens can be filled with distractions from the controller’s main focus, a given incoming airplane – or just in getting through your daily to-do list.
The good news for multitaskers: cognitive control can be strengthened. Undergrads volunteered to try ten-minute sessions of either focusing on counting their breath or an apt comparison task: browsing Huffington Post, Snapchat, or BuzzFeed.
Just three ten-minute sessions of breath counting was enough to appreciably increase their attention skills on a battery of tests. And the biggest gains were among the heavy multitaskers, who did more poorly on those tests initially.
If multitasking results in flabby attention, a concentration workout like counting breaths offers a way to tone up, at least in the short term. But there was no indication that the upward bump in attention would last – the improvement came immediately after the “workout,” and so registers on our radar as a state effect, not a lasting trait. The brain’s attention circuitry needs more sustained efforts to create a stable trait, as we will see.
Still, even beginners in meditation can sharpen their attention skills, with some surprising benefits. For instance, researchers at the University of California at Santa Barbara gave volunteers an eight-minute instruction of mindfulness of their breath, and found that this short focusing session (compared to reading a newspaper or just relaxing) lessened how much their mind wandered afterward.
While that finding is of interest, the follow‑up was even more compelling. The same researchers gave volunteers a two-week course in mindfulness of breathing, as well as of daily activities like eating, for a total of six hours, plus ten-minute booster sessions at home daily. The active control group studied nutrition for the same amount of time. Again, mindfulness improved concentration and lessened mind-wandering.
A surprise: mindfulness also improved working memory – the holding in mind of information so it can transfer into long-term memory. Attention is crucial for working memory; if we aren’t paying attention, those digits won’t register in the first place.
This training in mindfulness occurred while the students in the study were still in school. The boost to their attention and working memory may help account for the even bigger surprise: mindfulness upped their scores by more than 30 percent on the GRE, the entrance exam for grad school. Students, take note.
Another way cognitive control helps us is in managing our impulses, technically known as “response inhibition.” As we saw in chapter five, “A Mind Undisturbed,” in Cliff Saron’s study the training upped a meditator’s ability to inhibit impulse over the course of three months and, impressively, stayed strong in a five-month follow‑up. And better impulse inhibition went along with a self-reported uptick in emotional well-being.