The Science of Distraction

Dr.Amishi Jha
April 28, 2023
A seated figure is distracted by four different symbolic thoughts

Do I have your attention right now?

I hope so, but even if I do, I won’t keep it for very long. As you read this article, chances are that you’ll miss up to half of what I say. And on top of that, you’ll finish reading it, convinced that you didn’t miss a thing.

I say this confidently, even without knowing who you are, or how your brain might be different from the last one we tested in my lab at the University of Miami, where I research the science of attention and teach cognitive neuroscience courses. That’s because over the course of my career as a brain scientist, I’ve seen certain universal patterns in the way all of our brains function—both how powerfully they can focus, and how extraordinarily vulnerable they are to distraction—no matter who you are or what you do. I’ve had the opportunity to peek inside the living human brain using the most advanced brain imaging technologies available, and I know that at any given moment, there’s a high probability that your mind just isn’t here.  

Maybe you’re planning for the next item on your to-do list. You’re ruminating on something that’s been bothering you, a worry or a regret. You’re thinking about something that could happen tomorrow, or the next day, or never. Any way you slice it, you’re not here, experiencing your life. You’re somewhere else.

Is this just part of being alive? A side effect of the human condition, something we all just have to live with?

After twenty-five years of studying the science of attention, I can answer these questions. Yes, it is part of being alive—but no, it’s not something we have to just live with.

Our brain’s evolution was driven by specific survival pressures. The early humans who toggled in and out of focus, those who got distracted and looked up every now and then—pulled out of their task by a wandering mind—were the ones who realized they were in danger and acted appropriately, surviving to pass on their (distractible) genes. As a result, no matter what we’re doing, our evolutionarily-designed brains will tug us away from the task at hand.  And even if there isn’t an external distraction yanking us away, our minds will periodically go searching for one.

This distractibility served us well when predators lurked around every corner. However, in today’s technologically saturated, fast-paced, and rapidly shifting world, we’re feeling that distractibility more than ever, and we face new ‘predators’ that rely on and exploit our distractibility.

But just like training our bodies to work differently, we can train our brains to pay attention differently.  And mindfulness is one of the best ways to do so. 

But training takes time.  Imagine that I’d asked you to pick up the heaviest ball you can lift and then hold it in your hands the entire time you were reading this newsletter, with no warning or preparation. Of course, you couldn’t do it for very long without training first—by practicing holding up that weight for longer and longer stretches of time.

Attention training is similar.  It takes time, effort, and repetition to have an effect.  In fact, it’s even harder than holding a heavy ball.  Attention training is more like dribbling a basketball: The ball drops away from your hand, and bounces right back. Your focus shifts away from the task-at- hand, and then comes back.

Each time the ball falls away from your hand is either an opportunity (to reengage in your task, knowing you’re still where you want to be) or a vulnerability (lose the ball, then spend effort and cognitive energy getting it back). The more you practice mindfulness exercises, the better you get at “dribbling.” More and more, that ball will bounce back into your hand instead of rolling away.

But you have to keep dribbling!  If you want to be, say, the Steph Curry of attention skills, you can’t carry the ball across the court. You’re going to have to dribble it relentlessly while some of the best athletes on the planet are trying to steal that ball from you.

I’ve been practicing mindfulness exercises nearly every day for a long time. At this point, I appreciate and accept that on some days I’m going to be more distracted than others, and that’s fine. But at the very beginning, when I was starting out, I remember struggling through an especially unsuccessful session and feeling defeated. My thoughts were pulled in so many different directions, I felt as if I was going backward, getting worse.

So I inquired with a colleague who ran the mindfulness clinic at a major medical center. He had been meditating for more than thirty years and was an expert-level meditator. I asked how long he was able to hold his focus so I could get an idea of what to aim for as a goal. I figured, after thirty years, it had to be something amazing: Ten minutes? Longer?

“Hmm,” he said. “The longest I can hold my attention without it drifting to something else? I’d guess about seven seconds.”

Seven seconds? I was shocked.

But then I remembered: evolution has made us this way.  The goal isn’t to never get distracted. That’s not possible. The goal, rather, is to be able to recognize where your attention is moment to moment so that when you do get distracted, you can easily and adeptly move it back. 

And when you catch yourself off-task, your mind distracted or wandering, it’s not a failure or a reason to give up on attention training.  It’s what your brain was built to do!

Dr. Amishi Jha is Professor of Psychology at the University of Miami, the Director of Contemplative Neuroscience for the Mindfulness Research and Practice Initiative, and the author of a new book called Peak Mind: Find Your Focus, Own Your Attention, Invest 12 Minutes a Day.

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