The Age of Distraction

When we inundate our brain with too much information, it simply slows down.

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Thanks to a wireless web with a constant flow of information available to us anytime, anywhere, there are more things competing for our attention than ever before. Today more people have access to cellphones than to working toilets, and the average person checks their phone 110 times a day and nearly once every 6 seconds in the evening. Our perpetual, byte-size interactions are not only a detriment to our concentration, focus, productivity, and personal safety, but they’re also hurting our intelligence. A study at King’s College at London University found that when distracted, workers suffered a 10- to 15-point IQ loss — a greater dumbing down than experienced when smoking marijuana. A 15-point deficiency is significant, as it brings an adult male down to the same IQ level as an eight-year-old child.

Our brain’s prefrontal cortex is responsible for analyzing tasks, prioritizing them, and assigning our mental resources to them. When we inundate it with too much information or make it switch focus too quickly, it simply slows down. How much? The Journal of Experimental Psychology reported that students who were distracted while working on complicated math problems took 40 percent longer to solve them.

Ironically, compounding the problem is that our culture places a premium on speed, spontaneity, and efficiency. But those ideals come at a cost. In the hospitality industry, for example, the desire for a quicker room turnaround led to the daily room-cleaning quota for housekeepers increasing from 15 rooms per shift to 20 rooms. This, in turn, led to the injury risk rate rising from 47 percent to 71 percent, and the properties’ cleanliness was compromised. Scientists found that the level of colony-forming units of bacteria on surfaces in hotel rooms was 24 times higher than what hospitals deem the “highest limit acceptable.”

Similarly, in the world of managed healthcare, where monetary rewards are given for seeing as many patients as quickly as possible, medical professionals can be tempted to sacrifice quality care for quantity care and go straight for the patient’s chart in an effort to expedite the visit, relying on what the caregiver before them has written before personally evaluating a patient and making observations of their own.

Thankfully, there is a natural and easy buffer against letting the stress of speed and the steady stream of distraction overwhelm us: simply slowing down. In a commencement speech at Sarah Lawrence College, industrial designer Adam Savage reminded the graduates that they didn’t have to be in a constant hurry, that they in fact had plenty of time: “You have time to fail. You have time to mess up. You have time to try again, and when you mess that up, you still have time.” Savage also reminds us of the ironic pitfall of impatience: “Rushing leads to mistakes, and mistakes slow you down far more than slowing down does.”

Researchers at Princeton University and the University of California, Los Angeles, found that students who handwrote lecture notes rather than typing them out retained more of the information precisely because they were slowed down. A quick keyboard transcription doesn’t require critical thinking. The slower process of handwriting means not everything will be captured verbatim; instead, the brain is forced to exert more effort to capture the essence of what’s important, thus committing the information more effectively to memory.

Slowing down doesn’t mean being slow; it just means taking a few minutes to absorb what we are seeing. Details, patterns, and relationships take time to register. Nuances and new information can be missed if we rush past them.

Amy Herman developed a program called The Art of Perception using the analysis of works of art to improve perception and communication.

This article is featured in the July/August 2022 issue of The Saturday Evening Post. Subscribe to the magazine for more art, inspiring stories, fiction, humor, and features from our archives.

Feature Image: Shutterstock

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  1. I don’t remember where I read the article years ago but it talked about the “information Overload”. This was before home computers or home internet. I also heard someone refer to it in a podcast just recently. I know that I am not smart by any means but I do pick up snippets and bits and pieces of information, even to the point that I am forgetting some if not all I do hear or read. Time to do what the article suggests and start hand writing the information I want to retain.

  2. A twisted sense of entitlement combined with sheer stupidity may help explain why I see such frequent auto crashes at intersections, often with one of them upside down on someone’s lawn. 3 within 4 miles in a few minutes? Yes!!

  3. I was offered and accepted a $10 subscription. I keep getting statements to pay $30. I have written about this but am still getting those statements.


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