distractions, Hult Labs, mindfulness, mind-wandering, working memory

Understanding the Science of Distractions

Posted May 02, 2013 by Hult Labs

An extraterrestrial being has done cartwheels in front of you, tapped you on the shoulder twice, and you barely registered any of it. You are experiencing “flow,” that glorious span of time when your focus does not waver. Not one bit, not one ounce. Afterwards, you feel great, you feel productive – you feel accomplished (if not a little worn out).

You’ve achieved this heightened sense of focus by flexing your working memory. Psychologist Scott Barry Kaufman, in his article “In Defense of Working Memory Training,” defines working memory like this: “[It] involves the ability to maintain and manipulate information in one's mind while ignoring irrelevant distractions and intruding thoughts.” So when there’s a critical task or project on the line, working memory is our best friend. It allows us to muster up a concentrated form of focus to get tasks done.

Tracy Packiam Alloway, a psychologist at the University of North Florida, studies working memory and believes that it’s more important than relying on IQ (of which working memory is a building block). Her definition offers some additional depth to Kaufman’s version by saying that it has significant bearing on the “ability to learn, your potential; it doesn't measure what you have learned.” The ability to learn and stay on target are two skills that business students absolutely must possess – and sharpen – as they start out in their careers, and continue to advance in the workplace.

But activating your working memory to achieve laser-like focus isn’t always as easy as flipping a light switch. It can be a challenging proposition in a world where distractions abound like pieces of floating lint. They are everywhere and they can be obstacles. Gearing up the will and discipline to dodge and resist distractions isn’t easy, but it’s an important skill at the crux of what makes people productive and successful.

According to Kaufman, “working memory skills are essential for everyday intellectual functioning. Multiple research studies show that the inability to control one's train of thought has important real world consequences, from poor reading comprehension to unhappiness.” More on that last part in a bit.

For a long time, experts believed that working memory is “fixed,” meaning that your capacity for working memory is like a car’s gas tank – its dimensions are set, and its size is unique to you. It may be larger than some peoples’, or smaller, and there’s nothing you can do to change the size. In the last few years, however, neuroscientists have begun to disagree, with some arguing that “brain training” can increase the capacity of working memory, even if only for the short-term. (For more on that debate, you can go here.)

What we do know for sure is that distractions are not working memory’s only nemesis. Let me introduce you to another. It has many names, but we’ll go with this one: “mind-wandering.” You could be all alone, in a sound proof chamber, in a stone tower, on a deserted island, where distractions are few or non-existent, and you might still be thwarted from focusing. It’s tough to be productive and creative if you can’t reign in the tendency to wander through a chain of successive thoughts – from the pragmatic to the fantastical. When time’s a-ticking, this can spark a code red stress alert.

But apart from telling yourself to “stop it,” what else can you do to reign in a wandering mind so that working memory can power through? A team of psychologists at the University of Santa Barbara had the same question, so they decided to see if they could come up with some answers – or at least some insights.

In the article “Brief Mindfulness Training May Boost Test Scores, Working Memory,” Anna Mikulak quotes UCSB psychologist Michael Mrazek as saying: “Despite the wide recognition that mind-wandering is a pervasive and often disruptive influence in our lives, almost no research has established effective strategies for reducing mind-wandering. We set out to find ways to reduce mind wandering and thereby improve performance within educational contexts.”

Mrazek and team decided to find out if practicing mindfulness techniques (or not) could reduce mind-wandering, thereby boosting working memory. They split a group of students into two. The first group took a class specifically on mindfulness, applying strategies that allowed them to “maintain focus on the present moment” in and out of class. The second set of students took a nutrition class that required them to record their daily diet intake, but make no other changes. Researchers then had both groups repeat a section of the GRE and a working memory exercise that they had taken prior to participating in the classes.

The mindfulness-trained students not only bested their first round of scores, they also scored an average of 16 points higher than the nutritionist students. Mikulak quoted Mrazek as saying: “Even with a rigorous design and effective training program, it wouldn’t be unusual to find mixed results […] But we found reduced mind-wandering in every way we measured it and improved performance on both reading comprehension and working memory capacity.” Booya!

But if you’re still not convinced that addressing mind-wandering will help you professionally and personally, maybe this will do it: according to psychologist Matt Killingsworth, when people mind-wander they are less happy than those who would describe themselves as “in the moment” and “focused.” In his 2012 TEDxCambridge talk, Killingworth posited: “Maybe happiness has an awful lot to do with the contents of our moment to moment experiences.”

To find out, Killingsworth created a website, trackyourhappines.org, to send out daily, randomly timed surveys to people in order to collect their in-the-moment level of happiness. At the time of his TEDxCambridge talk, he had amassed a lot of data – 650,000 surveys from a wide variety of respondents all over the world. In his analysis, Killingsworth found that “people are substantially less happy when their minds are wandering than when they’re not” – even when they are doing something unpleasant, like commuting in gridlock traffic.

Killingsworth was also able to determine an average frequency at which people mind-wander. “47% of the time people are thinking of something other then what they are currently doing.” Hmm. That sounds like a lot of distracted, and possibly unhappy, people out there. But that doesn’t have to be the end of the story, because Killingsworth isn’t done with his research.

“My hope is that over time, by tracking peoples’ moment to moment happiness and their experiences in daily life, we’ll be able to uncover a lot of important causes of happiness. And then in the end, a scientific understanding of happiness will help us create a future that’s not only richer and healthier, but happier as well.”

That’s also not the end of our story (at least on mind-wandering and working memory). In our next post we’ll review some mindfulness techniques, and also discuss how meditation factors into all of this. Because while the jury is still out on whether or not it’s possible to permanently increase your working memory capacity (and in turn increase your overall IQ), you may not need extra cerebral horsepower to do stupendous things. You may be able to acquire skills to keep your mind on a shorter leash, thus allowing you to do the things you already do well even more stupendously than ever before.

To participate in the Track Your Happiness study, you can click here.

Photo courtesy of Labguest.

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