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The Distraction of Computers

Updated on August 9, 2017

Bonnie Miller tumbled into the chilly waters of Benton Harbour, Michigan in March 2012. She was texting while walking along a pier and strayed over the edge. Ms. Miller was fortunate that she had companions who fished her out.

Twenty-year-old Emy Brochu was not so lucky. In January 2012, Ms. Brochu was driving east of Montreal and texting her boyfriend. She had just sent a message of love to Mathieu Fortin when she slammed into the back of a truck and died instantly.

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Distracted driving, usually tied to cellphone use, is taking a heavy toll:

  • The Royal Canadian Mounted Police say distracted driving was a contributing factor in 104 collision fatalities in British Columbia in 2010;
  • The Ontario Provincial Police say that in the first three months of 2015, distracted driving was a factor in almost a quarter of the highway fatalities they investigated;
  • Four million vehicle crashes a year in North America can be blamed on distraction;
  • The Canadian government says such crashes cost the economy $10 billion a year.

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Overload and Health

Distraction caused by digital devices goes beyond putting people in harm’s way.

With the 24/7 connection to the entire world people are subjected to information overload.

Writing in The New Yorker (September 2013) Tim Wu notes “… we have built a generation of ‘distraction machines’ that make great feats of concentrated effort harder instead of easier.”

There’s a price to pay. Erin Anderson (Globe and Mail, March 2014) writes that “There is growing scientific evidence that sprinting through the day in a state of super-charged distraction takes a serious toll on our mental and physical health.”

This problem has been studied at length by Alex Soojung-Kim Pang at Stanford University in California. The title of his 2013 book, The Distraction Addiction, says it all. People feel compelled to answer every smartphone buzz, every tweet and e-mail, every Facebook posting.

Never mind the need to keep up with Bejewelled, Angry Birds, or Words With Friends. Constant interruption is robbing us of the ability to focus and concentrate. This is bad, says Mr. Pang: “Your ability to focus on what’s important is absolutely fundamental to the life you want to live.”

Psychologist Daniel Goleman agrees, “We are being pulled away from paying attention to the things that enrich our lives,” he says.

The Multitasking Myth

No matter how brilliant we think we are at multitasking the reality is we aren’t very good at it.

We think we can watch a TV show, answer e-mail, and read a newspaper all at the same time. Some people can do those tasks simultaneously, but they won’t do any of them well. Their brains get overloaded with information and they start making mistakes.

Here’s Adam Gorlick of Stanford University: “Attention, multitaskers (if you can pay attention, that is): Your brain may be in trouble.

“People who are regularly bombarded with several streams of electronic information do not pay attention, control their memory, or switch from one job to another as well as those who prefer to complete one task at a time.”

Mr. Gorlick was reporting in August 2009 on studies of multitasking. In a series of tests, high-tech jugglers were measured against one-job-at-a-time people. It turns out heavy multitaskers are horrible at ignoring distractions, cannot organize their memories properly, and can’t sort useless from important information in their minds.

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And, here’s another disturbing finding from a study at the University of London; multitasking lowers your IQ.

Reporting on the study for Forbes Magazine, Travis Bradberry writes (October 2014) multitaskers “experienced IQ score declines that were similar to what they’d expect if they had smoked marijuana or stayed up all night. IQ drops of 15 points for multitasking men lowered their scores to the average range of an eight-year-old child.”

Other researchers have found that brain resting is crucial to processing information.

Loren Frank is an assistant professor in the department of physiology at the University of California. He told The New York Times “Almost certainly, downtime lets the brain go over experiences it’s had, solidify them, and turn them into permanent long-term memories.”

Sometimes, humans just need to tune out the constant babble and think.

And, Matt Richtel notes in The New York Times “scientists are discovering that even after the multitasking ends, fractured thinking and lack of focus persist.”

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Permanent Changes

Many researchers refer to computers delivering a “dopamine squirt.”

Dopamine is a chemical that has been called the “feel-good hormone.” Released in the brain in response to a stimulus it delivers feelings of pleasure, not unlike a drug high.

Finding something new and exciting on the Internet has been shown to increase the production of dopamine. Many computer games deliver the same response.

Dr. Peter Whybrow is a psychiatrist and an expert on brain chemistry at the University of California, Los Angeles. In June 2012, he told The Pacific Standard Magazine “The computer is electronic cocaine for many people. Our brains are wired for finding immediate reward.” Technology can deliver those rewards in an almost constant stream, and we become addicted to the pleasure. The more we get, the more we want and Dr. Whybrow says this “becomes a hunger that has no bounds.”

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Solutions to Overload

The cure for these computer-related difficulties is simple – unplug; getting there is incredibly difficult.

The industry that created the problem is also offering therapies:

  • Inner Balance is a bio-sensor for smartphones that monitors heart rates and prompts the user to practice deep breathing as a way of relaxing;
  • Buddhify is an application that guides users through meditation to reduce stress;
  • Focus@Will is a music delivery service that makes somewhat extravagant claims that it increases a user’s attention span.

There are various other forms of calming software, but, these are only dealing with symptoms, not the disease.

Michael Harris, the author of the 2014 book The End of Absence, has some suggestions about how to become free of the urge to be connected:

  • Sever the electronic tie for a weekend;
  • Pretend the Internet is closed for the Christmas holiday period;
  • Start reading magazines, books, and newspapers;
  • “Ask yourself what might come from all those silences you’ve been filling up;
  • “Daydream. Make things up. Travel in your mind. Take walks. Meditate.”

Some people enroll in retreats such as Camp Grounded in California for a digital detox. On arrival at the 800-hectare site set in a redwood forest people are required to surrender their digital devices.

Visitors take part in yoga, campfire sing-alongs, hiking, swimming, stargazing, and counselling. The camp’s motto is “Disconnect to reconnect” and aims to help people “Celebrate what it means to be alive.”

Bonus Factoids

According to the Insurance Bureau of Canada “You are 23 times more likely to be involved in a collision if you text while driving and four times more likely if you talk on a cellphone (hand-held or hands-free) while driving.”

According to Dave Evans, the chief futurist at Cisco Systems, there are currently 12 billion devices connected to the Internet; by 2025, that number will be 50 billion

Lampposts in Brick Lane, London have been given a padded covering in an experiment to reduce the number of texting-while-walking accidents.

Sources

  • “Attached to Technology and Paying a Price.” Matt Richtel, New York Times, June 6, 2010.
  • “Texting Woman Falls Off Pier Into Lake Michigan.” Suzan Clarke, ABC News, March 23, 2012.
  • “Romantic Text Sent Moments Before Deadly Crash.” Julie Marcoux, QMI Agency, March 14, 2012.
  • “Distracted Driving.” Canadian Automobile Association, undated.
  • “How Today’s Computers Weaken our Brains.” Tim Wu, New Yorker, September 9, 2013.
  • “Digital Overload: How we Are Seduced by Distraction.” Erin Anderssen, Globe and Mail, March 29, 2014.
  • “New Lab Aims to De-stress Technology Use.” Brittany Torrez, Stanford Daily, undated.
  • “Media Multitaskers Pay Mental Price, Stanford Study Shows.” Adam Gorlick, Stanford News, August 29, 2009.
  • “Digital Devices Deprive Brain of Needed Downtime.” Matt Richtel, New York Times, August 24, 2010.

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    • pen promulgates profile image

      Imran Khan 4 days ago from Mumbai, India

      Rupert, what a beautiful article! Dopamine makes me feel good after reading this :)