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IDEAS | Kelly O’Brien

Why your smartphone is so hard to ignore

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Chances are high that your smartphone is within reach as you read this. You’ll probably check it before you finish the article, maybe because Facebook has sent you a notification, or because your anxiety about missing one has caused you to feel a “phantom vibration” in your pocket, or just because you’re bored. (Sorry.)

You might feel that you’re being efficient — reading an informative story and keeping up with your social network at the same time. But research increasingly shows this approach is counterproductive.

Your brain is not actually multitasking but quickly switching its attention back and forth. Each switch costs you time and mental energy as you refocus on the correct portion of the article. And in the time that you were away on Facebook, some of the information in your working memory faded away, so you’ll probably remember less of what you read by the time you’re done.

Don’t feel bad. As Adam Gazzaley, a neurology professor at the University of California San Francisco, and Larry Rosen, a professor emeritus of psychology at California State University Dominguez Hills, lay out in their forthcoming book on the topic, this behavior isn’t a personal failing of yours but an evolutionary failing of humanity.

In “The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High-Tech World,” the two researchers combine their expertise to show how modern technology keeps us in thrall by exploiting neurological limitations and what that means for our relationships, our productivity, and our mental health.


Ideas spoke with Dr. Gazzaley by phone from his home in San Francisco, and Dr. Rosen contributed answers via e-mail from a ship anchored off the Cook Islands in the South Pacific.

Below is an edited excerpt.

IDEAS: You argue that in order to understand our addiction to technology, we have to understand the human mind. What are the important neurological factors at play?

GAZZALEY: One of the most quintessentially human features is the ability to set high-level goals. These are goals that are time-delayed. They’re interwoven. They involve other people. They’re the types of goals that are critical to doing the amazing things that humans have accomplished that really you just don’t see to the same degree in other animals with very complex brains.


Goal-setting — which involves this ability to make decisions, to manage information, to organize, to plan — is at a very high level. But in order to then enact your goals, there’s another set of skills that we define as “cognitive control,” including attention, working memory, task-switching, and multitasking. These abilities are not all that evolved.

IDEAS: It feels like we’re pretty good at those things.

GAZZALEY: We have these very, very fundamental limitations that prevent us from performing at a level that we could if, for example, we could easily hold our attention in a boring situation, or if we could store a hundred items in mind as opposed to five or six, or if we could parallel-process high attention-demanding tasks, which we can’t.

If you do neuroscience research on other animals, including rats, you see some very similar limitations in these fundamental abilities of cognitive control. And so my thesis is that you have this conflict between goal-setting abilities, which are very evolved, and our goal-enactment abilities, which are less evolved. There is interference between what we want to do and what we’re actually capable of doing.

IDEAS: So how does that play out in modern life?

GAZZALEY: Let’s say you’re reading an e-mail, and you are on a conference call. I challenge anyone to really try to read through their e-mail and have a meaningful phone call. It becomes obvious you can’t do them both — because both of those activities are just so demanding on details.


What’s going on there is you have a network that’s directing your attention to be able to read and make sense out of what is in front of you on your laptop. You have this functional connection right across the brain from the prefrontal cortex all the way to the back part of the brain where the visual cortex lives. And then there is this other network that also involves the prefrontal cortex but is now primarily connected with the auditory cortex to understand what’s coming in through your ears and try to process the information from the phone call.

We don’t have these isolated islands of brain tissue that are doing processing independent of one another, but rather it’s this integrated network. We do not seem to have this ability to have those prefrontal attention networks going in parallel.

IDEAS: If many of us feel intuitively that we really can’t focus on two complicated tasks at once, why is it so hard to just put our phones away and focus on one thing?

ROSEN: As a confirmed geek, I can honestly say that the mobile, omnipresent technology that we have been promised since I read all those Tom Swift books in the ’50s has come to fruition, and we are so excited that we are not really paying attention to what these powerful tools are doing to our ability to attend to the rest of the real world.


GAZZALEY: Another reason is evolutionary. Even if you go back to single-celled lifeforms, there was always this cycle between receiving information and expressing it in some way. Our brain essentially does the same thing. We receive information, whether it’s a threat or food or a mate, and then we have actions. And we call that “bottom up.” Anything really salient, really novel in the environment is going to create a strong perception that’s going to drive an action that many times is just a reflex.

Now, humans are very “top-down” creatures. We live our lives not completely divorced from the environment but much more based on our internal goals than any other animal. But the reality is we are still sensitive to bottom-up stimuli. You couldn’t cross the street without being killed if you weren’t sensitive to the sound of a horn.

With modern technology, we have all these stimuli that are mimicking these environmental bottom-up stimuli that have captivated attention throughout our evolutionary path. So you get a vibration or a sudden buzz and you pay attention to it, starting this cascade of, “I wonder what that is.” And now the human curiosity and top-down nature come into it and next thing you know you’re miles away from what you were intending to do in the first place.

IDEAS: So this technology can be distracting at work and dangerous in some situations, like when driving. But what about longer term effects?

ROSEN: One of the unintended consequences of our technologies is that they now accompany us in the bedroom. We know that the light emitted by the smartphone or tablet held close to our face retards the production of melatonin. That keeps us logged in and focused on our devices and having trouble falling and staying asleep.


We also know the driving forces behind using our phone are mostly related to anxiety about feeling the need to check in with some form of communication. Social media and texting are the main culprits. Our work shows that those who use technology more — particularly communication technologies — show more signs of a variety of psychiatric disorders, which has been validated by other research. And our work shows that our propensity for using our devices is predictive of more signs of anxiety-based disorders.

IDEAS: OK, but haven’t humans always been kept awake at night by social anxieties?

ROSEN: We have always had the dual issues of boredom and anxiety driving our behaviors, but technology has exacerbated those opportunities and presented us with a dilemma. Prior to smartphones and tablets, we had to learn what to do when we got bored or anxious. We made up games to avoid boredom, and we talked to a friend to feel like we were staying in touch with our social world. Now we just grab our devices and don’t have to deal with what to do to alleviate those negative feelings. Boredom is an important state of being, since being bored activates areas of the brain that often lead to creative ideas.

Kelly O’Brien is a freelance writer in Boston.