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The Distracted Mind

Ancient Brains in a High-Tech World

By Adam Gazzaley and Larry D. Rosen
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The Distracted Mind by Adam Gazzaley and Larry D. Rosen

The Distracted Mind (2016) explains the basic structures of the brain and questions how well it can function in a world stuffed full of high-tech gadgets and constant distractions. Drawing on the latest research in neuroscience, it offers practical solutions for how to resist all these distractions and regain focus.

Key idea 1 of 9

The brain’s limitations mean we easily succumb to interference and distraction.

The human brain is unquestionably one of the wonders of the universe. With it, we can achieve incredible feats – from solving complicated math problems to learning languages and designing cars and jets.

In short, it’s one of the most complex systems in the known universe. In fact, it’s this complexity that helps us set goals and perform an incalculable number of tasks. From gossiping with friends to presenting the next big project for colleagues at work, our brain is equipped with decision-making, planning and evaluation abilities. More formally, these are known as executive functions.

After this planning function, another faculty of the brain is necessary to actually accomplish tasks. Specifically, we need cognitive control. These are cognitive abilities like attention, goal management and working memory.

If we didn’t have cognitive control, there’d be no way to make conscious decisions that inform and have an impact upon our lives. Instead, we’d just respond unthinkingly and mechanically to the world around us.

Imagine you’re wandering the aisles of your local supermarket because you need food and drinks for friends who are coming over that night. If you were to suddenly lose all cognitive control, your ability to pay attention to and remember that goal would simply vanish. Instead of tracking down beer and snacks, you’d be walking through the aisles without aim.

Unfortunately, nowadays, our cognitive control is under more stress and strain than ever before. Consequently, we are distracted from our goals even more.

This has a lot to do with complexity and the complicated nature of the brain in particular. More complex systems are more vulnerable to interference.

If we’d evolved so that we could cognitively control our minds despite constant interference, that would be great. But we haven’t.

In fact, our cognitive control seems to have evolved less than our executive functions. In other words, we’re collectively great at setting goals but far worse at seeing them through.

This explains why we all tend to forget tasks like calling on a friend’s birthday or turning off the lights.

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