The Distracted Mind With Dr. Adam Gazzaley - Summary Of Key Ideas

Posted on August 20th, 2013

Photo by gorbould

I have recently watched The Distracted Mind with Dr. Adam Gazzaley, a renowned neuroscientist and M.D., Ph.D. The Distracted Mind delves deeply into attention, distraction, the myth of multi-tasking, and how to use the latest research to possibly improve our skills and abilities at any point during our lives.

While the brain can seem almost boundless in its potential, it has limitations, such as processing speed, attentional limitations, working memory limitations, and sensitivity to interference, which can be both internal and external. Dr. Gazzaley explores the impact that multi-tasking has on our safety, memory, education, careers and personal lives.

Most importantly, The Distracted Mind tells us what we can do to improve our attentional abilities and our focus as we age, and as media continues to dominate our landscape. From changing our behaviors, to literally changing our brains, Dr. Gazzaley shares information you need to survive and thrive in the information age.

Here is what Dr. Gazzaley had to say about attention, memory, multitasking, interference, texting, focusing, performance.

The Human Brain

The human brain is the most complex structure that we are aware of. It allows us to process complex information in the environment within a tenth of a second. The storage capacity of the brain is quiet large because over the course of our lives we will remember billions of bits of information (50,000 x text stored in the library of congress).

There are about a hundred billion neurons in the brain, which is about the number of stars in the Milky Way galaxy. Even more amazing is that there are hundreds of trillions of connections between the neurons creating a complex network of communication.

Every thought you have, every emotion you have, and every move you make emerges from the functioning of your brain. However, the brain has its limitation, which include attention, working memory, processing speed, and sensitivity to interference. Interference has a negative effect on your performance. Interference can be internal of external.

The senior moment

Have you ever had an experience where you would get up from your couch and walk to the fridge only to find yourself lost in why you came up to your fridge? Seniors are not the only ones who experience this memory problems, everybody does. Have you ever wondered why does this happen?


External interference is further divided into distractions (irrelevant) and interruptions (multi-tasking). If the information is irrelevant, we consider it a distraction. The main goal with irrelevant information is to ignore it. For instance, when you are sitting in the restaurant, you ignore the noise around you and focus on the conversation you have with the other person.

Multitasking is the idea that you can do more than one thing at a time where you have your primary goals but you also engage in some secondary goals at the same time. For example, while having a conversation with another person at a restaurant, you also pay attention to what the weightier is saying to someone nearby.

Internal interference is further divided into intrusions (mind wandering) and diversions (multi-tasking).

Mind wandering occurs when you are focused on your goal and yet your mind wanders away to something that is totally irrelevant to what you are focusing on.

Internal multitasking occurs when you have an external goal but your are engaged with an internal goal at the same time. For instance, you are listening to a someone speaking or reading this text, while thinking about something else at the same time like planning your lunch or dinner.

We are constantly exposed to noise, which seems to be increasing. This noise includes email, notifications, text messages, phones calls, other people, website pop ups, browser tabs, videos, and other factors.

Technology and the Brain

We all love technology and enjoy using it every day but over the last decade there has been an explosion in the variety and the diversity of electronic media. Portable devices can deliver as much information as a computer.

  • Have you ever worked on a document while listening to music and having your email open?
  • Have you ever watched television while surfing the Internet and receiving text messages?

Over 90% of (the US) population reports this type of multitasking. The number of media devices that children use simultaneously can be even greater than the adults. The fact is that this type of behavior is not going away anytime soon. Technology companies are working hard to deliver better and faster ways of information consumption. More people than ever have a new expectation for immediate responsiveness causing an increased interference in our brains resulting in problems with our cognition and performance.

Times Square - distraction capital of the world.

Photo by kevin813

How do we function at all with increased explications of the technological environment and set limitations of our brain? Over time, people have changed their expectations on how responsive we are. You may be on your vacation or being engaged in a conversation and you suddenly hear a text message notification. The ability to instantly check your messages and respond creates a new kind of demand on you where you feel like you have to respond immediately and sets a new standard for how you should interact witch technology.

Many people really think that engaging in multiple activities at the same time is a rewarding behavior. There is a possibility that this type of behavior triggers productions of dopamine neurotransmitters (pleasure chemicals) in the brain, which can lead to a certain type of addiction. Researchers discovered that some children may begin to feel bad when they are not engaging in multiple activities at the same time.

Cognitive Control

Cognitive control is the main reason why you can function in the distraction filled environment. We process the world around us through attention. There are two types of attention: external (stimulus driven) and internal (goal directed attention).

External attention (bottom-up processing) is whe the environment demands your attention even independent of your goals. Bottom-up means that something is coming up from the environment. For instance, it can be someone calling out your name or a police siren.

Internal attention (top-down processing) occurs when you are directing you attention (your vision and hearing) towards something specific like a speaker (person) on the stage.

All of your interactions in the environment are the balance between these two forces. These influences on our perception shape how we perform in the world, they shape our short-term, working, and long-term memory. Focusing and ignoring are two different processes.

The Prefrontal Cortex

The prefrontal cortex is a part of your brain that control how you perceive the world around you including filtering what is important to you and what is irrelevant to you. It also controls how you behave in the world (appropriate or inappropriate behavior). The prefrontal cortex gives us control in how we act in the world and makes us most human. The proportion of the prefrontal cortex in the brain increases as you move from simplest species to the most complex species like humans.

Animals are more bottom-up driven because they respond to their environment and are less goal directed. Children are also largely bottom-up driven because the prefrontal cortex is the last part that develops in the brain. Teenagers are largely driven by the stimuli in their environment rather than by their goals because their prefrontal cortex is not yet fully developed.


Photo by Wesley Fryer

What kind of effects does the media has on children in terms of their attention and performance? There is some evidence that shows that the amount of time that young adults spend on instant messaging is significantly related to their higher rates of distractibility on their academic tasks. Will the children who are distracted by technology today be able to engage in the kind of attention that is required to read a book tomorrow?

How Interference Impacts Our Cognition

The Gazzaley lab at the University of California, San Francisco uses three main streams of research to study the brain. These tools include fMRI1, EEG2, and TMS3. fMRI allows the researches see blood flow changes to correlate them with changes in neural activity. EEG are electrodes that places throughout the scalp and record the electrical activity of the neurons in the brain. TMS allows the researches to stimulate the cortex with a high magnetic field that then allows them to see how that area is involved in the causal way in the activity. A lot of the research is focused on healthy older adults (without pathologies). Key questions include:

  • How is the brain changing in the way that leads to a reduction in the desired performance?
  • Can we fix it and make it more optimal?

The lab’s main focus is interaction of attention and memory. Back to the the senior moment experience - remembering something for a few seconds and losing it after. Activity of the working memory increases when you have to remember scenes and decreases when you have to ignore scenes. Older adults direct the same amount of focus as the young adults. However, older adults are not as good at ignoring irrelevant information as young adults. Older adults have better memory for information that they should not have remembered when compared to young adults.

Key ideas

  • Suppression is important because if you let irrelevant information in, it affects your memory and performance.
  • It’s not just important to ignore, it’s important to ignore rapidly.
  • Your memory is actually best when your eyes are closed.
  • The brain is very sensitive even to normal interference that surrounds us.
  • Distraction disrupts your performance and interruption disrupts it even more. This problem increases as you get older.

Neuromechanisms of Distraction

The impact of interruption on working memory.

Resisting distractions creates of a strong bond in your working memory that allows you to hold on to your original task. When you are interrupted, the connectivity in your working memory drops below the level that you attain with no interference or with the distraction and then it returns after the interruption disappears. Older adults experience a problem in reestablishing the connectivity.

What this means

The prefrontal cortex is in charge of your attention. It serves as a bouncer that determines the type of information that is on the “guest list” by maintaining its connections with the visual parts of the brain. Your ability to perform well on a task while being distracted involves maintaining this connection. If you don’t maintain things connection, you pay the price of decreased performance.

The prefrontal cortex is also in charge of multitasking and acts as a “flight controller” by determining the priority of the incoming information. It determines what is important now and what can be done later. For instance, while riding a bike and reading a text message, the prefrontal cortex helps you decide that paying attention to the traffic is more important right now.

The cost of multitasking results in time delays in switching and has a negative impact on task performance. Multitasking is a myth, you cannot engage in both tasks at the same time when they involve a lot of cognitive resources that compete with each other. What you are doing is switching between the tasks while decreasing the performance.

Chronic Impact on Cognition

Chronic impact of multitasking leads to higher susceptibility to interference from distractors and lower effectiveness at task-switching.

Research findings suggest that there is a correlation between video games and attention. Action video games can improve attentional and perceptual abilities such as distraction resistance capacity of attention and contrast sensitivity. The group of participants that played an action game Medal of Honor4 had improvements in their abilities whereas the group that played Tetris did not have any improvements.

Back to Nature

Photo by Striking Photography by Bo Insogna

Reconnecting with nature can give you the opportunity to unplug and reset. Nature can give you an escape and allow you to slow down, to connect better both with yourself and the environment, and to experience the present moment. By allowing yourself to be completely immersed in nature, you can discover a whole new view around you. After you return from the “nature trip” you will feel rejuvenated and energized.

Our perception of our environment is influenced by our attention. Nature photography is a top-down experience where you have to focus on your environment and make it the center of your attention to appreciate the beauty that surrounds you. But you also have to use bottom-up attention and remain sensitive to the aspects of the environment that you may not have been focusing on based on your goals.

While walking down a path you might have a goal to photograph a waterfall at your destination. But if you are too focused on your goal, you may not notice a beautiful flower or an animal on the side of the trail. Nature photography demands that we balance our top-down goals with bottom-up attention. It also allows us to interact with our surroundings in a dynamic way, merging our personal goals with what the environment is sharing with us.

Other Consequences of Distraction and Multitasking

Distraction and multitasking has a strong impact on safety such as driving and texting. They increase your risk of traffic accident by four times. Using a hands free device such as a bluetooth headset or your car’s speakers does not solve the problem. It is not about just having your eyes on the road and having both of your hands on the wheel, it is more about having your brain focused on driving. However, having a conversation with a person sitting next to you does not increase the risk of an accident as much as using a hands-free device.

The passenger in the car is also engaged in ensuring the safety of your driving. The passenger engages in a dynamic conversation where he or she will respond to the situation on the road by slowing down or redirecting your attention back to the road. A person talking to you on the cell phone is actually competing for your attention. Research data suggests that using a cell phone while driving is equal to or even worse than drunk driving.

Texting while driving is even more extreme because it demands your cognitive and your visual resources. Not only do you have to think about what you are going to reply but you also have to look at the cell phone to see what you are typing.

Due to the laptoping while flying problem, “on October 21, 2009, a Northwest Airlines jet with more than 140 people on board lost contact for more than an hour before it landed in Minneapolis. It had overshot its destination by 150 miles”.5

Walking and using phone is risky. The amount of injuries reported in 2008 was almost a thousand of pedestrians that tripped or walked into a stationary objects while using their cell phone. This number has doubles from 2007 and doubled from 2006.6

Impact on Development

Decreased face-to-face time has a possible negative impact on development such as social skill, empathy, communication, and writing skills.

Impact on Family

A lot of people text or interact with their cell phone instead of being in the dinner with their family.

Impact on Workplace

Research study found that on average, workers tended to engage with a projects for about 12 minutes before witching to a different project. They kept on switching from project to project throughout their day. Even more disturbing was that they were interrupted multiple times within the period of 12 minutes by email, internet, and phone. Multitasking results in $650 billion a year in lost productivity.


Why do we do it? Multitasking is flexible and it allows us to have a fresh perspective when we switch. It increases the variety of things that we do. It might enable us to sue our downtime more productively. It can simply be more fun. People like to seek novelty.

People have been searching for novel experiences and environments since the beginning of evolution. The amount of novelty in a single hour of multitasking is much greater than the same hour spent single tasking. People who multitask might get a burst of dopamine and can even become addicted.


Background noise can reduce the negative impact of office noise. Distraction might be helpful when it competes with other distraction. Although, music can help you improve your mood or increase your arousal, music is also interference. The benefit of music only comes when you carefully select it.

What you can do to handle distraction

You can change your behavior by setting and following specific rules or and you can change your brain by using medication or cognitive training.

Establish rules. When you do something that demands high quality and especially when it is time sensitive, quit your email, turn off your phone, shut the door, and remove all possible sources of distraction. To be productive with important tasks, you need to give high quality singular attention to what you are doing. Performance quality decreases if you allow frequent interruptions.

You can use multitasking productively with boring, easier, and less critical tasks. However, you must choose your tasks carefully to make sure that they can be done while multitasking. Be honest with yourself.

Some people use medication such as ritalin, adderal, caffeine, provigil, aricept, and nicotine to improve their performance. Most of these are stimulants that are not prescribed for the purpose of improving attention and memory, a lot of college students use them to improve their cognitive abilities. Some of the effects include increased arousal, concentration, working memory, and other cognitive functions. However, intake of these drugs can actually lead to decreased performance in the long-term due to side effects and changes in the brain.

Distracted Mind Ideas

1. Practice paying attention to your own behaviors

  • Do a self-assessment test.
  • Take note of how you use media in different settings including home, work, and in social situations.
  • Ask yourself how you feel when multitasking. Do you feel in control or do you feel overwhelmed?
  • How does multitasking affect your performance, mood, or level of stress?
  • Set an alarm to remind yourself of your behavior. Just pause and pay attention to your behavior.
  • Self-awareness is one of the keys to self-control.

2. Challenge yourself

  • Just because you are surrounded by the demands for multitasking, does not mean that you have to feel out of control.
  • Exercise your cognitive control by learning how to better interact with your environment based on your goals.
  • Challenge your routines. For example, stop texting or using your cell phone at all while driving. Not only is it illegal, it is just not safe.
  • Avoid distraction when you are engaged in important tasks.
  • Practice single-tasking for an extended periods of time. Do one thing at a time.
  • Retreat to nature.

3. Stay on top of the research

  • Keep learning more about how your brain works.
  • Explore new research data and apply it in your own life.


There is hope for all of us to strengthen our brain to deal with interference and improve our fragile working memory abilities. We can learn to interact with our environment in a more effective way. Our understanding of how our brains interact with our environment might guide our decision making ability and allow us to make more informed decisions thereby increasing the health and the qualities of our lives.

  1. Functional magnetic resonance imaging or functional MRI (fMRI) is a functional neuroimaging procedure using MRI technology that measures brain activity by detecting associated changes in blood flow. Wikipedia 

  2. Electroencephalography (EEG) is the recording of electrical activity along the scalp. EEG measures voltage fluctuations resulting from ionic current flows within the neurons of the brain. Wikipedia 

  3. Transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) is a noninvasive method to cause depolarization or hyperpolarization in the neurons of the brain. TMS uses electromagnetic induction to induce weak electric currents using a rapidly changing magnetic field; this can cause activity in specific or general parts of the brain with minimal discomfort, allowing for study of the brain’s functioning and interconnections. Wikipedia 

  4. Medal of Honor (MoH) is a series of first-person shooter video games. The first game was developed by DreamWorks Interactive (now known as Danger Close Games) and published by EA Games for the PlayStation game console in 1999. 

  5. BBC NEWS | Americas | US seeks airline pilot laptop ban. (2009, November 3). BBC News - Home. 

  6. Richel, M. (2010, January 16). Pedestrians, Too, Are Distracted by Cellphones - The New York Times - Breaking News, World News & Multimedia 

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