The science behind attention and the brain’s vulnerability to distractions

By Shivani Madhan

Are you ever unable to concentrate while doing your homework because of the incessant buzzing of your phone? Do you ever space out during a conversation due to a series of endless texts from a friend?

In the past few decades, technology has played a larger part in our daily lives and we constantly find ourselves with devices by our side. Even though technology helps us easily access information, perhaps we need to take a step back and look at the disadvantages of technology, such as its effects on attention.

According to an article by Verywell Mind, attention is the concept of how the human brain actively processes specific information gathered from one’s environment and surroundings. However, attention is a limited resource and therefore, the brain must decide what stimuli from the environment it will focus on — this is known as selective attention.

Attention is controlled by the brain’s reticular activating system or RAS, a network that connects neurons from all over the brain. When people concentrate on a certain task, parts of the RAS associated with that particular task are activated.

However, distractions, or stimuli from the environment that are irrelevant, often play a role in reducing the amount of attention dedicated to a task. According to Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), a brain circuit in the prefrontal cortex helps us filter out unwanted distracting stimuli. When this circuit is activated, the brain suppresses the signals that are irrelevant to the information we want and prevents it from passing through the thalamus, where most sensory information enters the brain. 

People are prone to many different sorts of distractions. These distractions or stimuli can be auditory, olfactory or visual. But why are some stimuli more distracting than others? Psychologist Martin Wolgast states in the Journal of Psychopathology and Behavioral Assessment that distraction can be a strategy of emotional regulation. Emotional regulation refers to the way we deal with feelings like anger, excitement, frustration, anxiety or low mood and is affected by the stimuli we are exposed to. 

This explains why certain distractions are harder for our brain to suppress because we are more inclined towards them. For example, it may be harder for a person to do an unwanted task, such as homework, rather than playing video games.

One major aspect of our lives that poses several distractions is technology. According to an article by Psychology Today, the average person spends about six hours on the internet per day. Because technology is constantly evolving and we are so invested in it, it is not a big surprise that people spend so much time online.

We are constantly surrounded by electronic devices, such as our phones, tablets, and laptops. Even though technology makes life easier for us in many ways, it has several disadvantages on our daily life. Guidance counselor Jessica Coscia has attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and feels technology has added onto this, making it more difficult for her in some aspects.

“For example, if I’m talking to my husband and he’s playing something on his phone, that extra background noise is distracting because I’m trying to focus on one task but there’s something else going on,” Coscia said. “You have issues paying attention for long periods of time [with ADHD]… but in addition to that, it’s also harder for you to process things.”

ADHD is a term used to define most attention disorders. As stated in an article by the American Psychiatric Association (APA), some symptoms of ADHD are inattention, hyperactivity and impulsivity. But how does technology in particular make living with ADHD harder?

“[Students] are so used to having immediate access to everything like being able to text a friend or look up something on a computer,” Coscia said. “I’m guilty of it too; I look at my phone all the time.”

Since technology can be so addictive and it’s already hard for people with ADHD to concentrate on one task, some, like Coscia, feel that it’s easier to get distracted. To reduce the number of distractions caused by distraction, Coscia thinks it’s beneficial to do a “technology detox” every once in a while.

“What I like to do when I go home is to put my phone on the bookshelf in the same spot every day,” Coscia said. “I get home, I put my phone away, I do my stuff, I hang out; I don’t even really check my phone until like 8:00 after I put my kids to bed… I know it can be a distraction and I want to be present for my family so I put it away.”

According to Coscia and her experiences with ADHD, technology can play a large role in our lives. But the implications spread much further than that, and into the daily lives of students as well.

An experiment was conducted to test the effects of music (the technology in this instance), on people’s attention and ability to learn/memorize. Twenty MVHS students from a variety of backgrounds (age, gender and ethnic groups) were selected to be subjects in this experiment. They were split into one of two groups: the control group or the experimental group. 

A list of the same 10 words was shown to each of the subjects (each word was shown for five seconds) and they were asked to memorize the words. After the 50-second period, the subjects were asked to write down the words they saw in the order they remember seeing them. The control group underwent this experiment without the presence of distracting stimuli. The experimental group, however, was listening to “What Makes You Beautiful” by One Direction while they memorized the words. The volume of the music was varied throughout the 50-second period to make the external stimuli more distracting.

The average score for the control group was approximately 8.5 out of 10 correct answers, while the experimental group had a mean of 6.5 out of 10. A subject from the experimental group was interviewed on their experience during the experiment.

“[I think the music] distracted me because it was a song that I knew, so I wanted to sing along. There were also distracting external factors such as Sophia, another participant in the experiment, who was talking during the 50 seconds,” sophomore Vickie Chen said. 

Chen acknowledges that music can be distracting, especially catchy, well-known songs, so “[she] usually do[es]n’t listen to music if [she] wants to be concentrated.” 

Another distracting aspect of technology to all students alike is social media, such as Instagram, Snapchat, and Facebook. “I think social media apps are really easy distractions because everyone has a phone these days and it’s so easy to access it. It makes it really easy to procrastinate because you get distracted,” Chen said.

However, music and social media are not the only places technology is present in the daily lives of students. Some high schoolers, like junior Eriz Zheng, drive to and from school and have to face many distractions on the road. 

Zheng, who usually has his phone in the car while he drives, recognizes that technology can be distracting while driving and that this is dangerous because staying focused is crucial on the road. Zheng himself isn’t prone to distractions, both while driving and in daily life, but in order to eliminate the number of distractions on the road, he “put[s his] phone in [his] pocket so it [is] hard to reach for it and get distracted while driving.” 

As seen through the countless implications of technology in our daily lives, including its effects on concentration during common tasks such as driving and completing homework, perhaps it’s time for us to take a step back from technology and enjoy the world around us.

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