Electronic nipples and the nutrition of dirt
Patrick D’souza explains how smartphones distract us and affect our productivity, and offers advice for how to ‘switch off’ and refocus.
Daniel Goleman, author, psychologist and science journalist has always warned of distraction and how it can dramatically reduce your ability to perform tasks.
“Distractions are the enemy of focus. The more prone to distraction, the worse we do.”
What’s worrying about technology is the way it is being designed; with little understanding and appreciation for the brain and what makes it tick.
Two months ago, Android released Marshmallow, its newest mobile operating system. Its lead story – split screen multi-tasking. ‘Split-screen multitasking and improved notification controls are among the new features being added to the Android operating system (OS).’
And herein lies the quandary.
What a study published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology reveals about multi tasking, is that it doesn’t work – not if your goal is to do a job and do it well.
Mid-last year, researchers Cary Stothart, Ainsley Mitchum and Courtney Yehnert documented the findings on an experiment they conducted on mobile phone usage while working or performing a task.
By way of methodology, they got research subjects to perform a task. While doing so, they disrupted them with text notifications on their mobile phones.
They found that in the case of tasks that required fair but not above average concentration, text notifications significantly disrupted the capacity of individuals to perform them.
The core findings of this experiment were also evident in an experiment run by Joshua Rubinstein (PHD, Federal Aviation, USA), David Meyer and David Evans (both PHD’s from the University of Michigan) that was featured in a report titled ‘Multi-tasking undermines our efficiency’ published by the the American Psychology Association.
Studying Behavioural Science at the Australian College of Psychology, I’ve understood from past basic research studies that all performance is related to ‘attenual function’ or ‘dysfunction.’
Attenual function is nothing more than the capacity of an individual to focus on one task without getting distracted with another before it is completed.
It is the fundamental behind both organisational and individual performance. It is also the fundamental behind attention disorders, conditions that growing evidence suggests can hit anyone at any time and that is driven by distractive factors (personal, social, environmental, technological or organisational).
If an organisation has a performance issue, a distractive element – personal, social, environmental or technological – is likely to be driving it.
While identifying the issue is more complex when it comes to personal, social and environmental elements, it is not when it comes to technology.
What the studies I’ve highlighted above suggests fairly conclusively (they are replicated experiments) is that ‘notifications’ and the technology that drives them impact performance.
What can organisations and individuals do to rectify the situation? Switch off.
Though easier said than done, performance can be best-enhanced when we take a second look at the way the technology in our phones is both designed and used.
What our mobile phones, and the notifications we receive through them have become to us – an ‘electronic nipple’. They offer ‘comfort’, a sense that we are a property ‘still in demand’. From an evolutionary perspective, this is important as our ‘demand’ or ‘usefulness’ (which we can tend to determine, rightly or wrongly, by the number of calls and notifications we receive), perceptually reinforces to us, our ability to ‘survive’ and go on to ‘thrive’, consequently, as well.
The best ways I’ve learned to switch off?
1. Turn it off
Increasingly, what neuroscientists teach is that the brain is an ‘electrical motor’ not dissimilar to that found in cars. If this motor overheats, we break down. If it receives more signals than it should, our wires get crossed and our ability to take decisions can be compromised. Mobile phones emit signals. It makes sense therefore to turn them off while working.
2. Keep your phone out of mind by keeping it out of sight
The eye is our brain – or the first part of it. If it sees the phone, it will be hard to distract our brain from it. Out of mind is out of sight. Switching off the power button, and keeping the phone in another room or in a bag where it is hidden can concentrate the mind and focus its cognitive power more elegantly and beautifully.
3. Put headphones on – but not music (unless you need the energy that emanates from it)
The ear is a brain too. Overstimulate it, and we can lose the perceptual intelligence other sensory organs provide. Our eyes, our nose, our skin, for example (our skin is also part of our overall cognitive set,we call it the somatosensorial index or part of the brain).
If our attention is captured by the ear, what is presented to the ‘eye’ may not be noticed. This is why audiovisual communication is so effective. It’s the ‘dual distraction – sight and sound – that’s actually allowing messages to enter our brains without us filtering them.
Put headphones on, and by blocking sound, what we do to sight is ‘attenually focus’ it. The result – we understand and absorb the reality of what’s presented in front of us better.
4. Work in an open space – preferably one with trees and soil in it
Looking at neurobiology, I have learnt that we can attribute much of behaviour to environment and the bacteria that make it up.
A lifelong student of language and culture, I have always been intrigued by words, phrases and the truth contained within them. For example, when a person is behaving badly, we often ask them (sarcastically) why they don’t ‘take a hike’.
Mind and body healers also recommend the same thing – they ask patients, particularly those suffering from stress (all maladaptive behaviour comes from it) to consider taking ‘long walks in the forest’ as part of their therapeutic regimes.
Why do they do so? In the forests, which are generally green, there exist billions of microbes, most of which we haven’t even classified yet (this is where Big Data is going to make a difference, and help humanity ‘stride’ forward).
When we walk in the forests we ingest these green, ‘good-natured’ bacterial microbes which fundamentally affect our sense of well-being and as a consequence, our behaviour too.
Recently, Dr Shetreat-Klein, a paediatric neurologist who lives in New York and who wrote the book Healthy Food, Healthy Gut, Happy Child, said in an article in The Telegraph titled ‘Let them eat dirt’ that “the over-sanitisation of our lives is depriving our guts of the biodiversity that can be found in healthy soil, making us more susceptible to conditions like allergies.”
“In one ‘teaspoon of soil’ there are as many microbes as there are people on the planet,” she says. “That is an incredibly biodiverse experience for our brains, our immune systems, our guts.”
What Dr Shetreat-Klein is highlighting is the relationship that exists between the quality of the internal microbes we know we are all made up of, and our sense of inner-being and behaviour – as a consequence.
By choosing to work or study in an open space (ancient Indians weren’t mucking around when they sat children under banyan trees to teach them), we are inhaling and ingesting these beneficial microbes who are not just responsible for our thought processes, but are actually driving them!
Distraction is a curse
Technology, developed foolishly and unthinkingly, with little understanding or appreciation for the brain and the biology it’s based on, can do more harm to individuals, organisations and the ‘cognitive function’ they hold within them than we ever thought before.
A bit of ‘common sense’ thinking, and the application of this to technology and the way we develop and use it, can make a huge difference to the impact it has on our lives.
Used intelligently, and wisely (sparingly, never extravagantly), technology can take away its curse of distraction, and help us genuinely understand our potential as well as expand it!